PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS

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Advent is a time to prepare for the Lord, who has promised to come to you. He is coming, whether you prepare or not, so wouldn’t it be better to ready to let him in?

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2018 Advent Week 2: Preparing for the Lord

A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled;
the uneven ground will become smooth
and the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will appear,
and all humanity together will see it,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:3-5, HCSB)

One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. There’s nothing like that first glimpse of the Smokies when you’re driving East toward Knoxville or Maryville and you see those high ridges silhouetted against the sky. From a distance it looks like one long continuous line of mountains all across the horizon. But when you get closer, and actually start to drive into the Smokies, you realize that they are not actually just one unbroken ridge. We go to Townsend a lot, and there’s a road that weaves its way through and in between high ridges and mountains. When you get right to it, some of the ridges are actually closer and some far away. It is only the distance that makes the mountains look like they all start together and are all part of the same ridgeline.
I think this picture describes quite well how Biblical prophecy often works. Most of the prophets were given a vision by God, and that vision was much like a view of the mountains from the distance. They describe what is actually coming, but their perspective is affected by the distance of time. The prophets view the future like we view the Smokies from a distance – all the events were “out there” and they all seemed to be about the same distance away. When we get into the actual events however, we realize that actually quite a bit of distance separates each one from the other.
Very often, in addition to holding predictive prophecies, the writings of those whom we call the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel etc. – also contain messages that are relevant to the people who first heard them. These immediately relevant meanings are meant for us as well.
Let’s look at Isaiah 40:3-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles (this happened, by the way, in 587 BC, almost 200 years after Isaiah’s time). Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon (this also happened, staring in the 520s BC). Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about the future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.
Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.
The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:

“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”

Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation, would be another word for it.
It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.
This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.
Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.
First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says:

“Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.
Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”
Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable:

“every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…”

Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.
This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.
Let me give you a concrete example. Most of you know that I struggle with chronic pain. In this struggle, I have often been aware of an opportunity. Actually, let me back up. I have been through hard times in the past, and afterwards, realized that I blew an opportunity to let the character of Jesus Christ be more fully formed in my life, because I spent the time whining and complaining. This time, not perfectly, but more often than in the past, I am aware of the choice I have, and instead of fussing, I am saying “yes,” to God. As I do that, God has been giving me something so precious – a deep knowledge of his love, and a sense of being so very close to Him. I don’t know how else I could have received it, other than saying, “In the middle of this pain, I say “yes,” to you, God. Instead of griping at you, I say, “do your work in me.” I know I’m not doing this perfectly, but even so, I can sense mountains and hills being torn down, and valleys being filled up inside me. I sense the presence of Jesus with me, more and more.
All of this, is essentially the promise of Christmas. Christmas is an old word meaning: Christ-Mass. It was the communion celebration of Jesus Christ. We are in the Christmas season right now. Use this Christmas season. These next two weeks, as we get excited, use the fun of Christmas to welcome Jesus, to give him access, and to watch in wonder as he works in your life to bring you closer to him. All you have to do is believe it, and don’t shut down the work that he is doing in your life.
Let’s celebrate the fact that Jesus is coming straight at our hearts. If we allow him, he will raise up the valleys, and fill in the rough places, and – this is the big one – he will live within us. The glory of God will actually dwell inside of us by the Holy Spirit – just as it did with Mary, 2000 years ago.

ADVENT: THE SEASON OF “SECOND CHRISTMAS”

 

Advent1

The church season of Advent is all about anticipation and expectation: not about Jesus’ birth, but about his return to earth. Sometimes, we have the same sorts of conflicting emotions about the return of Jesus that we have toward Christmas: anticipation, joy, stress and a fear that perhaps we will miss out.

1Dear friends, this is now the second letter I have written to you; in both letters, I want to develop a genuine understanding with a reminder, 2so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. 3First, be aware of this: Scoffers will come in the last days to scoff, living according to their own desires, 4saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation.” 5They willfully ignore this: Long ago the heavens and the earth were brought about from water and through water by the word of God. 6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell.

14Therefore, dear friends, while you wait for these things, make every effort to be found at peace with Him without spot or blemish. 15Also, regard the patience of our Lord as an opportunity for salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. 16He speaks about these things in all his letters in which there are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.

17Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability. 18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pet 3:1-18, HCSB)

2 Peter 3:1-18. Advent Week 1,2017

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? What if we are wrong about the whole thing? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

  1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.
  2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfilment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

  1. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.
  2. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

  1. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

 

 

 

PREPARING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

end world

 

 

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Advent Week 3 (sermon #2). Matthew 24:36-44

As you are probably aware, there are only seventeen shopping days left until Christmas. This is the season when we remember how God selflessly surrendered the powers of his divinity and came to us as a helpless human baby. We typically commemorate this by generously cursing the people who steal our parking places at the mall, and mediating peacefully on new credit card debt while we drift off to sleep.

Of course, there is something else we can do as the days lead up toward Christmas. We can spend the time and energy in expectation. We can focus on the coming of some really cool Christmas presents! Ha Ha! Just a little pastoral humor for you there. Actually, while the time leading up to Christmas can be a wonderful time of remembrance and focusing on Jesus’ birth, it is also a time that can help us think about Jesus’ next physical visit to our world – his triumphant return. In fact, that is the traditional purpose of the church season of Advent, which we are now in.

As we read in the Bible about the things that led up to the birth of Jesus, it becomes obvious that the people living at the time did not know exactly what was coming, but all the signs and prophecies pointed to this: God was going to act in History. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna and Simeon – all experienced things and remembered prophecies that encouraged them to get ready for the Lord to come to his people. None of them understood completely how it was all going to play out, but they believed and they acted in obedience and prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

Now, where are we today? Jesus has already come as a baby. He grew up. He sacrificed his innocent life for us. And he was raised from the dead, and left our world physically. It’s wonderful to remember that. It helps our faith. I also want to encourage us to also do what those faithful believers did before that all happened – to prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our case it is not his coming as a baby, but rather his coming into our lives personally, and of course, his triumphant return to earth. To help us do that I want to look at some things Jesus said before he left us. Please read Matthew 24:36-44 in your Bible.

This teaching of Jesus occurred during the week before he was crucified. Just prior to saying this, Jesus said that it will be possible to notice and consider “the signs of the times” that indicate his return is near. His next statement is this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now, I have met people who like to describe in detail what everything will be like just prior to the ending of world. I’ve met others who feel that they can guess with some degree of accuracy when it will come. I think, if we consider carefully what Jesus is saying here about his return, we will realize two things:

1. It is possible to recognize the “season” just prior to Jesus’ triumphant physical return to earth.

2. It is not possible to accurately predict specific details about the future, just prior to the return of Jesus, nor the exact time it will happen. Even Jesus himself did not know, prior to his leaving our world.

I think the Lord has set things up like this because he wants his followers to live in a state of continual expectation of his return. Look at this way: if we knew that Jesus would come back exactly at 9:00AM on November 2, 2027, I think we would all relax a bit and say, “well, I don’t have to bother about that for quite a while yet.” Let’s face it – some of us wouldn’t start to get ready for his return until 8:15 that morning. But if we look at this little passage, we can see that the point Jesus is making is that we should always be ready. The fact is this: it could be any day now. It could be today.

Jesus indicates that the season of his return can be recognized. Are we in that season? I think so. I recognize, however, that the apostle Paul thought so too. Fifteen hundred years later, and 500 years before now, Martin Luther thought he was living close to the end times. This doesn’t discourage me in the least, because I believe Jesus wants every generation of his followers to live as though his return is imminent. Some of the things that indicate to me that the season of Jesus return might be near are these: the formation of the Jewish nation in 1947; The dramatic increase in the number of lives lost through war in the twentieth century; the incredible spread of immorality and godlessness in the world. I think huge natural disasters like the tsunami a few years ago are also significant.

But even if I am mistaken in one sense, consider this. It is entirely accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, Jesus will return by the end of my lifetime. When you die, it has virtually same effect, for you, as if it was the end of time, and Jesus has returned. At the time of your death you will meet Jesus face to face. Your existence on the old earth will have ended for you. If you think this old world will keep spinning in space for another 4 billion years, fine. But you won’t be on it for much longer, all things considered. It is not given to us to know when we die. I may get in a car wreck next week, and for me, Jesus has returned. So you also must be ready, because “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah. Virtually every culture that keeps any sort of history, has a historical tradition that includes a story very much like Noah and the ark. The Samburu people, living in the near-desert of Northern Kenya have a flood story. The people of India have one too, as do those in Indonesia, and around the world. There is debate about whether the flood was worldwide or local, but the historical and genetic evidence is that all people on earth are descended from one family, a family which apparently survived a great flood. The people in the days of Noah were warned about the flood. It didn’t seem to them like anything would ever change. Noah took 300 years to build the boat, and probably even he wondered if it would really come. But one day it did, and it destroyed everyone but the family that believed and prepared for it.

The return of Jesus may seem like it is a long way off. It may seem like things will never change. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

So how can we be ready? How do we “keep watch” as Jesus said? First, we need to receive and welcome Jesus as he comes to us right now. Consider Hebrews 3:7: “So as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought: “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Jesus’ coming happened yes, at Bethlehem when he was born as a baby. And yes, He will come again in Judgment. But right now, He comes to us every day. He comes to us to spend time with us. Maybe that is time in prayer and meditating on the scriptures, or time going for walk and talking to him as well as listening to him. He comes to us, wanting to bless other people through us. Are you receiving him today? Maybe you’ve never received him into your life at all before. If not, please pray a simple prayer, something like this: Lord Jesus, I want to receive you in my life. I need your forgiveness and love and grace. Please come now and take over my heart and my will, and live your life through me. Thank you for hearing and responding. AMEN.

There’s really no point in getting all excited about the return of Jesus if we aren’t interested in the ways he comes to us right now. But if we have received in him into our lives, I think, as I said earlier, he would like us to live each day in expectation of his return. How would you live today if you knew, absolutely for sure, that Jesus was coming back at 11:00PM tonight. Would you express your love to your friends and family? Who would you spend time with? What would you say to people? How would you spend your time on the last day in history? Now, why can’t you do some of that every day, no matter how many or few days you have left? Why can’t you regularly tell people about Jesus? Why can’t you always affirm your loved ones and express your love for them? Why can’t you just avoid sin, just for today? Why can’t you fully surrender to Jesus every day?

It’s not a gimmick – Jesus really is going to back, whether we are ready or not. Instead, it’s grace – he’s told us he is. He wants to live his life through us, in the expectation of what he will do when he comes back. Will you let him?

YOU ARE TOO OLD!

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In the season of Advent, we remember that God is still acting in this world, that Jesus has promised to return ,and that God still wants to bless and use His people, no matter who they are in the eyes of the world.

 

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Advent 2015 #1 . Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

If you are following along with our series in the book of Matthew in real time, this is not it. I preached Matthew #69 just at the end of November. Now, for the next four weeks, we’ll be focusing on the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Bear with me a few moments while I explain what we call “The Church Year.” After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, Christian churches began to have more contact with one another, and it wasn’t long before “the church” was also an institution with an organizational structure and a hierarchy. There were, of course, a lot of negatives about this. However, one of the positives was a sense of unity that extended among virtually all Christians. One way that unity was preserved was through having all churches reading the same scriptures as other churches each week; this later became known as the lectionary. The lectionary was organized around “church seasons.” There are some small variations, but in general the seasons are: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and “after Pentecost,” (sometimes call “ordinary time”). Each season has a kind “character” to it. For instance, Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus and the significance of His incarnation. Lent is a time many Christians use to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, and to engage in personal repentance. Easter is about the resurrection, and so on.

I want to emphasize that these church seasons are not given to us by the bible; they are traditions, and no true Christian would say that it is necessary to observe them in order to be a follower of Jesus. One of the negatives of the church year is that it means that huge portions of the bible will never be read in churches which strictly observe it, since those churches focus only on the lectionaries given for each season. Even so, I think we can benefit at times from the traditions associated with the church year.

For me particularly, Advent is one of the seasons that I find very helpful. Advent actually marks the beginning of the church year, and starts four Sundays prior to Christmas. I use the season of Advent, with its traditional readings, to help me get the most out of what the rest of the world calls “the holiday season.”

The focus of Advent is helpful to me, because it takes my eyes off of the commercial aspects of Christmas and the holidays. It even takes me out of simply sentimentally reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ. The theme and scriptures of Advent remind me that Jesus has promised to return. They encourage me to focus on what Jesus is still doing, and will do in the future. It keeps my hope focused on eternity, and my work focused on how God would use me here and now.

Now, I am going to go ahead and show the weakness of the church year by using some scripture that is not in any of the traditional Advent readings. I think, however, that these verses can help us get our focus in order for this season.

One of the overlooked figures surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is the father of Jesus’ cousin John. John’s father was Zechariah, a priest. In the year when both Jesus and John were born, Zechariah was chosen for the rare honor of offering incense during the sacrifice. Priesthood was determined by birth – they had to be descended from the first priest, Aaron. Each priest served with others in his division for two weeks every year; Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. Duties were assigned by random lot. Jewish documents suggest that at that time, a priest would have such an honor only once in his entire lifetime, and many priests never had the chance. To be chosen for this duty would be the highlight of Zechariah’s life.

One interesting note is that from all this we might take a stab at finding out what time of year Jesus was actually born. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple. 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 of the following year, and Jesus in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a lag time of just two months total 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.

The innermost part of the temple was called “the holy of holies,” or, “most holy place.” In it (originally, before they were lost) was the ark of the covenant, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. This was where the Hebrews believed that God’s presence remained. A thick curtain separated the “most holy place” from the “holy place.” In this second, larger space stood a table with bread, which was renewed every seven days. Also here was a seven branched golden lampstand (something like a Menorah) and finally, the altar of incense. Zechariah would have been accompanied into the Holy Place by two assistants carrying coals and incense, whom would withdraw and leave Zechariah alone in the sanctuary to complete the ceremony. Meanwhile, a large gathering was worshipping out in the courtyard, which means it may have been a Sabbath day.

Now, I want to set the stage a little bit. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “blameless.” I don’t think Luke means they never sinned, but rather, they conducted themselves in faith and integrity for their whole lives. This is significant when we learn that they don’t have any children. In the first chapter of Genesis, God blessed the first human beings and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” For thousands of years, Jewish culture saw this as a sign that children are God’s blessing; they also believed that when people could not have children, it was because God was somehow displeased with them. Many people felt that such couples must have sinned in some way, so that God prevented them from having this blessing. It is true that Abraham and Sarah did not have children until old age, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel also was barren for a long time before Samuel. Even so, it is virtually certain that their childlessness was a source of very real emotional pain for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They must have wondered what they had done wrong. It is quite possible that others in their community thought that they had been particularly sinful, for God to withhold children from them. Zechariah and Elizabeth may even have felt angry with God – after all, they had lived in faith and integrity, but still, God withheld this blessing from them. By the time Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple, both of them were obviously older than normal child-bearing age. In fact, a fair description of them would be “old.”

In temple alone, Zechariah would have been praying for the worshipers and for the nation of Israel. At this point, an angel appears to him. I think it is interesting to note that Luke records that it appears “to the right” of the altar of incense. There is nothing particularly significant about the position of the angel, and that reinforces the authenticity of this scripture. Luke is carefully recording a story that had been told and remembered in detail, even unimportant details. For me, it is one of those hundreds of little things that rings true in the biblical accounts of history.

As recorded elsewhere in scripture, the appearance of the angel was awe-inspiring, provoking a kind of fear. Like so many angels before, this one begins by saying: “Do not fear.” The angel goes on, telling Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard,” and then explaining that he is about to become a father. One thing that isn’t clear is what Zechariah’s prayer actually was. As a priest, it was his duty to pray for the people. He might also have been praying for himself and his wife. The fact is, God’s answer, foretold through the angel, addresses both Zechariah’s personal desires, and his prayers for people of God. On the personal level, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have the joy of parenthood. On the larger level, their child will be used by God to do significant spiritual things for the people of Israel. By the way, this follows a familiar pattern from the Old Testament. Sarah and Abraham longed for a child of their own, and in finally fulfilling their desires, God began the nation of Israel. Samson’s parents were also childless until an angel announced to his parents that he would be born; but Samson wasn’t just for his parents – he would also be used by God to deliver Israel. Hannah was full of grief because she could not have children, and finally God answered her prayers and gave her a child, Samuel. But Samuel was not just a blessing to his mother – he became one of the greatest prophet-leaders in history.

In light of all the people in Israel’s history who had famous babies after long barrenness, Zechariah’s response might seem surprising. He questions how it can happen, since both he and Elizabeth are getting along in years. But at another level, I think it is entirely understandable. First, there is the issue of age. In ancient Israel, older people were given respect, and yet, at another level no one expected much of them. Healthcare then was not anything like it is today, and people then could not expect to remain active as long as they do today. So, Zechariah knows that he is nearing the twilight of his life. Since that is the case, why would God possibly choose him, not only to be a father, but to be the father of someone that God was going to use in great ways? It just didn’t seem likely. In his response to the angel, he mentions Elizabeth. It is clear that he thinks of her in the same way as he thinks of himself: too old.

Second, and I am reading into the text a little bit here, I wonder if Zechariah, at some level, thought that God was being too good to him. Here he was, in the holy place of the temple, standing where very few Israelites would ever get to stand in their lifetimes. He is been blessed with this great honor, and now God is coming along saying “I’m going to bless you even more.” It just seemed too good to be true.

Third, in spite of the fact that in the past God granted previously barren women the ability to have children, he certainly did not do that for every barren woman in history. In addition, all that happened a long time before Zechariah was born. The latest incident that I mentioned above was that of Hannah and Samuel, and that occurred about 1000 years before Zechariah stood in the temple that day. In other words, though I’m sure Zechariah believed that God had done this sort of thing in the past, and he probably even believed that theoretically, God could do it now, it was a whole different thing to believe that God was actually going to do it now, and for him. I mean, I have a hard enough time believing that God will repeat miracles that I have seen with my own eyes in my own lifetime, so I can’t blame Zechariah for saying “How can I know this will happen?”

Now, I want us to see how God responds to Zachariah’s weakness. First, of course, Zechariah is rebuked for his lack of faith. Then, as now, the Lord is seeking people who will trust him wholeheartedly, and he makes it clear that Zachariah failed in this. This is an important message for us: all the Lord wants from us is trust. He wants us to trust his promises, to trust his goodness, to trust his word.

But I want us to see the incredible grace that God gives to this old man. First, we need to understand, it was not that Zachariah had no faith at all, but his faith was weak. I’m sure he wanted to believe it. He did not say “I don’t believe a word of it.” Instead, his question was: “how can I know for sure?” God’s response is both a rebuke for Zachariah’s failure to trust wholeheartedly and at the same time a gracious answer to Zachariah’s desire to know for sure that God was going to do this:

20Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20, HCSB)

Do you see what is going on here? His lack of faith is both disciplined, and answered. The angel made it so he couldn’t talk. Certainly, this must have involved some hardship for Zachariah, but it was not, after all a very terrible thing, and it was temporary. I think most of us could learn a lot, and even perhaps find some unexpected peace, if we were forced into nine months of silence. [Spouses, insert your jokes at each other’s expense here] At the same time, the fact that he couldn’t talk would have been a constant reminder to him that the words of God were true and trustworthy. Even while disciplining Zachariah, God gave him the answer that he desired.

Afterwards, when the child was born Zachariah demonstrated his faith by naming him what the angel told him to name him. At this point, he was released from his silence. Luke records that Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to praise God. I think this is very important. When Zachariah was focused on what he wanted, and upon his own unworthiness and unfitness, his faith was weak. But now his focus is all on God; his focus is not on the gift of his son John, but on the giver of the gift: God himself. The words he spoke at this point have lived on for 2000 years in Luke’s gospel.

So, what is all this have to do with us? What would the Holy Spirit say to you through the Scriptures?

The first and most obvious one to me is that God can use anyone. Think about what God was doing at this point in history. He used an Emperor to take a census which ultimately caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy. He used an unwed teenage girl to become the mother of his own Son. He used a humble carpenter to become the stepfather of the son of God. And he used an old man and an old woman who had already had a full and blessed life to bring even greater blessing into the world: John the Baptist, who in turn prepared the way for the Messiah.

Not too long ago, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, died. One of his famous sayings was: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” For a guy who said a lot of silly things, that one is very profound. If you are alive enough to read or listen to this sermon, it ain’t over for you, not yet. The Lord still wants to bless the world through you. Before you say, “But how can he possibly use me?” I want to remind you that that is more or less what Zachariah was asking. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how he will use every single person. However, I do have a suggestion: pray. Prayer, in and of itself, is a powerful force for God’s work in the world. When you pray, you invite God into the things you are praying for, and he shows up where he’s invited, and where he shows up, he does his work and accomplishes his purposes. When you pray you are partnering with God to release his power into the world. Every single one of us can pray, which means that God can use every single one of us in amazing ways. In addition, it was as Zachariah prayed that the Lord showed him what else he wanted to do in and through his life.

Another thing I get from the story of Zachariah is that God is good; so very, very good. Zachariah had already received the honor of burning incense in the holy place. He lived a long and full life. Then he was promised a son, and when he doubted the promise he was given a sign to show him that it was true, and to help his faith. This is one blessing after another heaped upon Zachariah and Elizabeth, even towards the end of a blessed life. This encourages me to trust the goodness of God.

Finally, Zachariah reminds me to focus more on the giver then on the gift. John was a tremendous gift for Zachariah and Elizabeth. But by the time he was born, Zachariah had learned that the greatest gift he would ever have was the grace and love of God, and nothing could ever take that away. I hope and pray that you and I can also have that same perspective.

As we consider that Jesus not only came 2000 years ago, but also promised to return, let’s try to learn from Zechariah. God is still working in the world. He wants to involve you in what he is doing, no matter how unqualified you might feel.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.

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ANTICIPATE CHRISTMAS

This is a message I gave a couple years ago, but I think it is still timely and relevant at this time of year. The first two minutes of the audio are a little rough, but it gets much better fairly soon.

 

Boy with Advent wreath

 

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Advent 2011 . Anticipation

There are just fifteen days until Christmas as I write this. Can you feel it? The shopping carts groan under the weight of food and presents. The Christmas carols are on the radio, and the mall loudspeakers. The food has steadily increased in amount and quality, since thanksgiving. The eggnog is out, and the Christmas trees, and the manger scenes.

Like it or not, the truth is, Christmas is cultural phenomenon. And it is coming. 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 the anticipation. Get excited, let the joy infect you – and use it to let Jesus draw you closer to himself.

Did you know that there is really only a 1 in 365 chance that December 25 is actually the Birthday of Jesus? That’s right. No one actually knows what the day was. The best guess that scholars have is that it was in the spring, because the shepherds outside of Bethlehem may have been watching the flocks of sheep that were used in nearby Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration (which is in spring). But even that is just a guess.

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 is disappointing. 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. Either way, use your desire to be with those you love 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.

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.

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.

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.