#3:  Blessed are the Meek…”

The Beatitudes Sermon Series:  “The Life God Blesses”

#3:  Blessed are the Meek…”

Galatians 5:16-25  and  Matthew 5:5 (Weymouth New Testament)

 

 

This morning, we are continuing our look at the Beatitudes of Jesus – those “keys to happiness” that seem so elusive in our lives.  We all want to discover true happiness, to live a life of blessedness.  And yet it seems that the door to happiness is locked.  We try all kinds of “keys” to unlock the door – things we believe might make us happy, and yet we are not happy.

 

Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hands us eight keys that will finally unlock that door – keys we have been receiving one by one:  The first week we considered what it means to say “Blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit.”  Last Sunday we reflected on the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Both seemed like unlikely “keys” to the blessed life – but Jesus insists that they are!

 

Today we are handed a third key:  “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

As we have seen throughout our study, Christ’s prescription for happiness runs counter to the world’s advice:  The world insists, “Blessed are the rich in things.”  But Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world promises, “Blessed are those who have been spared sadness.”  But Jesus counters, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

 

Today, Jesus surprises us again, “Blessed (happy, to be envied, fortunate, well-off) are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

MEEK!  – Inherit the earth?  That can’t be true!  We all know who gets ahead in the world, and it’s not the “meek!”  People get ahead by assertiveness and intimidation, by looking out for #1.  We’re like the woman Billy Graham once wrote about, who said, “I want to climb the ladder of success, and I don’t care whose fingers I step on as I climb up the rungs.”

 

No, Jesus, you’re wrong!  The meek are the ones down at the bottom of the ladder who are always getting their fingers stepped on!  Everyone knows that the meek don’t inherit the earth – don’t they?

 

That all depends on how you define the word “meek.”

 

Let me get at it this way:  Have you ever aspired to be meek?  When you were a child, did you say, “When I’m all grown up, what I really want to be in life is, . .  .to be meek! That’s my aspiration –  my highest goal in life.”

 

When you look at your children or grandchildren and think about them growing up, what is your dream for them?  Do you say, “My dream for them is that they might be meek”?

 

“Meek” really is not a word that comes to mind when I think of what I want to be myself, or what I want other people to be.

 

And some of that is because when we think of the word “meek” there are so many negative connotations of “meekness.” If you were to put the word “meek” into the thesaurus in your computer, it would spout out a number of words that we don’t like very much, words that we might call downers or negative. So, here are some synonyms of meek, according to the computer:

 

acquiescent and spineless,

brow-beaten and bullied,

compliant and docile,

cowed and dominated,

hang-dogged and hen-pecked,

intimidated and broken and crushed.

 

Is this what we want to be? Is this what we want for those we love – to be like that? You know, I really don’t think so.  But Jesus says, “Happy, Blessed are the meek. They are the winners.”

 

What do you think of when you hear the word “meek?”  For me, “meek” conjures up an image of someone who is weak, cowardly, sheepish, and easily intimidated – someone who would let others walk all over them – someone without enough gumption or self-respect to stand up for him or herself.

 

When I hear the word “meek” I always picture those old Charles Atlas ads I used to see on the back of comic books – that caricature of a skinny little man lying on the beach who had sand kicked in his face, by that muscular bully, too weak and shy to defend his honor.  At least, that is how I have always thought of this word.

 

You see, that described me growing up.  I was the kid who got sand kicked in his face.  Skinny, uncoordinated, and introverted, I was easily intimidated by the “jocks” in the class, who labeled me the class “nerd.”  I had no self-confidence, and even less self-esteem.  To my way of thinking, I was the very definition of “meek.”

 

But as I have studied for this sermon, I have learned that I was not “meek” at all, at least, not according to what the Bible means by “meek” – a wimp, maybe;  meek, no.  As with so many of the words in the Bible, our English translations do not begin to convey the whole meaning of the original language.  The biblical meaning of the word translated here as “meek,” has little to do with my juvenile notion about what the word means.

 

In the Bible, there are three individuals who are identified as possessing the quality of meekness.  Who do you think they would be?  – you might be surprised!  From these three characters, I think we can learn a whole new definition of what the Bible means by “meekness.”

 

From the first character, we learn that to be meek does not mean to be weak.  To the contrary, in the Bible, meekness is actually strength.

 

The first individual in scripture described as “meek” was none other than that great and imposing Old Testament figure, Moses.  In Numbers 12:3 we read, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.”

 

Moses, meek?  Moses –  who was raised in the palace of the Egyptian Pharaoh, meek?  – who killed an Egyptian guard out of anger, meek? – who confronted Pharaoh and demanded Pharaoh’s obedience, meek? – who stood before God Almighty and boldly pleaded for mercy for the sake of his people, meek? – who led an unruly and stubborn nation with a firm hand for forty years, meek?

 

According to our modern ideas of the word, Moses was anything BUT meek!  There must be more to this word than first meets the eye – and there is!

 

A number of years ago, Bill McCartney, the former football coach and founder of Promise Keepers, spoke at one of the Promise Keepers rallies I attended.  He was describing strength of character, particularly as it relates to leadership.  In his talk, he defined “meekness” like this: “strength and courage, coupled with kindness.”

 

If that is what meekness means, then we can begin to see how the Bible could call Moses “meek.”  Certainly, in his role as the liberator of God’s people, Moses exhibited “strength and courage, coupled with kindness” – strength of faith to follow God’s direction, courage to stand before Pharaoh putting his life on the line, and kindness as he looked with compassion upon the plight of his people.  Yes, Moses was meek by that definition.  That’s because, to be meek does NOT mean to be weak.

 

The second individual identified in the Bible as being “meek” also was an example of strength rather than weakness.  But that wasn’t why he was called meek.  There is another aspect of meekness that must be considered.

 

To understand how this second biblical character could be considered meek we need to look carefully at the technical meaning of the word in the original language used here in Matthew’s gospel.  The Greek word in this passage, literally translated, means, “TRAINED TO OBEY.”  So literally, this Beatitude should read like this: “Blessed (Happy) are those who are trained to obey, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

There was a man who was terminally ill, and knowing he was dying, said this to his wife:  “My dear, see that you bring the children up to honor and obey you, for if they don’t obey you when they are young, they won’t obey God when they’re older.”  There’s a lot of truth in that!  To be meek means to have been trained to obey.

 

How many of you have ever attended a rodeo?  I’ve only been once or twice, but I enjoyed the experience.  One time, more than years ago, while I was serving a church in a rural community, I took my two sons to a rodeo (I don’t know if they even remember it – they were quite young at the time).  I remember trying to explain to them about “bronco busting” – you know, the technique used by cowboys in the old west to break wild horses.  The wild horses that galloped freely across the open lands of the American West possessed a great deal of strength – but their unbridled power was of no use to anyone.  In fact, unharnessed strength in any form can be very dangerous!  In order for a horse to be useful to its master, its WILL must be broken.  Only then is its strength controlled and refocused so it becomes useful.  The same is true for us.

 

So, who was the biblical figure that demonstrates this quality of meekness?  Not surprisingly, he, too, seems like an unlikely candidate.  The Bible describes the mighty King David as “meek!”

 

David?  We don’t think of David as being meek!  And he wasn’t meek for much of his life.  For the first half of his life, David was caught-up in himself.  He was wildly successful at whatever he tried:  As a boy he killed the giant Goliath and in the process, rescued the entire army of King Saul from disgrace.  He was a great military leader whose fame caused him to become something of a super-hero, the kind of macho-man that made all the women of Israel swoon, and all the men of Israel jealous.  His was a “rags to riches” story: he went from being an overlooked shepherd boy to become the most beloved King in all the history of the Jews.  He just seemed to have the charisma and the talent to do anything.  It appeared that David could do no wrong!

 

But it wasn’t to last.  David’s troubles began when he started to believe his own press-releases!  David arrogantly began to trust in his own strength and abilities.  His authority went to his head, and as always happens, he began to abuse his power.  He seduces another man’s wife, gets her pregnant, and then arranges to have her husband murdered to cover up his sin.  And again, as always happens, the truth came out.  God exposed David’s sin through the voice of a prophet.  And David confessed, repented, and was restored to God’s favor.

 

You see, David was like that wild horse – powerful and dynamic, yet dangerous.  It wasn’t until God “broke” David’s will that David discovered that true greatness comes, not from our own power, but from a spirit of obedience and submission to God.  God had used David’s sin to “train him to obey.”

 

David displayed true strength of character when he stopped relying on his own power and finally submitted in obedience to God’s will.  After David’s sin, David penned Psalm 51:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

 

David was a wild stallion!  David needed to be broken, his power needed to be harnessed.  He needed to submit to having God put a “bit” in his mouth so that God could lead him where God wanted him to go, and use him as God wanted him used.  David had finally discovered that true power comes to those who have been trained to obey.

 

In the case of both these “meek” characters from the scriptures, their strength was ultimately not in their own power, as powerful as each of them was.  Their strength and greatness came from their willingness to live in submission and obedience to God, to humble themselves before God.  Their own strength had to be broken so they could discover that true strength only comes from God.

 

So, back to our Beatitude of Jesus:  We’ve seen that meekness is not weakness, but strength.  But not just any strength.  According to Jesus, the meek who are blessed are those who draw their strength from God, and who are humble and completely obedient to the will of God.  Their quiet, harnessed, disciplined strength comes from beyond themselves.  These are the people, Jesus says, who are the true winners in God’s sight.

 

So, how MEEK are you?  Could you be called “meek” in the way the Bible uses the word?  And, how do you know?

 

The litmus test is to reflect on this question:  Where does your strength come from?  Are you going through life “flailing away” like a bronco, full of power, thrashing in every direction at once?  Or have you allowed God to “break” your will so that you might be trained and used by Him?

 

Only when we have done that, Jesus says, can we begin to know what it means to live a blessed life and discover true happiness.

 

Oh yes, earlier in this message,  I said there were three individuals in the Bible who teach us about meekness.  The third, of course, is Jesus himself – the perfect illustration of One who possessed “strength and courage, coupled with kindness;”  One whose awesome power was rooted in his “obedience and submission to God’s will.”

 

Was Jesus weak or was he strong?  Certainly, in the eyes of his contemporaries, Jesus was a weakling, a loser, the guy who got sand kicked in his face by the bullies of the world.  But in actuality, Jesus was anything but weak.  And I’m not just talking about those moments in his life when he demonstrated his power – commanding the wind and a waves to be still, the healing of the sick and the raising of the dead, or even his furious anger at the hypocritical religious leaders or the moneychangers who had desecrated the House of God by cheating people who came to worship.  No.  I’m talking about his meekness in standing before his accusers, and accepting their ridicule, taunting, and abuse.  And of course, the ultimate act of godly strength when he willingly allowed himself to be nailed to a cross, so that God’s perfect will might be fulfilled, and you and I might finally receive that ultimate “key” to happiness – eternal life.  Now that is meekness!  An awesome meekness!

 

Earlier in this message, I listed all those negative connotations of the word “meek,” words that certainly don’t apply to Moses, to David, or to Jesus.  But there were also other synonyms identified by the thesaurus in the computer that beautifully describe all these Biblical figures – and most especially Jesus:  In addition to strength and obedience, meekness also implies being:

 

modest and self-effacing,

unassuming and understanding,

patient and persevering,

unhurried and quietly confident,

contented and courteous.

 

Blessed are the meek, Jesus says, those who are modest and self-effacing. Happy are the meek – those who are unassuming and understanding. Happy are those who are patient and persevering. Fulfilled are those who are unhurried and quietly confident, contented and courteous. These are the ones who are the true winners in this world.  These are the ones who will know what it means to live a blessed life.

 

Or in Jesus’ own words, “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

As we have seen, these may sound like lovely words.  But they are not spineless words. In fact, they’re just the opposite. If you’re going to be meek, as in “meek” like the synonyms in this second list, then you are going to be a very, very strong person indeed: meek, but not weak – like Moses;  trained for obedience – like David.  In other words, meek, just like Jesus.

 

And “Jesus” IS precisely what he calls us TO BE:  As Jesus instructed us in Matthew 11:29:  “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am MEEK and lowly of heart.”

 

Friends, f you want to live the blessed life,  – – you must first become “meek –  like Jesus.”

 

#2:  Blessed are those who mourn

The Beatitudes Sermon Series:  “The Life God Blesses”
#2:  “Blessed are those who mourn…”
Matthew 5:4;  Matthew 11:28-29 (NRSV)

This morning, we are continuing our look at the Beatitudes that we find at the beginning of the Sermon the Mount – Jesus’ eight keys to the blessed life.  Last week we looked at the first Beatitude:  “Blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit.”  As you may recall, we were struck by how strange these words sounded to our ears.  Well, the next thing Jesus says is equally as perplexing: “Blessed are they who mourn…”

We are all different in many ways. We come from unique backgrounds and different ethnic origins.  Some of us are well off financially, others not so well-off.  Some have lots of “book learning,” others have practical knowledge that comes from rich life experiences.  Among us are many different talents, skills, interests, and career choices.

As different as we are, there are ways we are all alike.  We share certain basic human needs – physical, emotional, and spiritual. We long for meaningful relationships with others.  And of course, we are all sinners in need of the saving grace of God.

In this Beatitude, Jesus is speaking to a common experience everyone shares.  Grief is a universal experience.  It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of IBM, or a beggar on the streets of Titusville, everyone knows grief and sorrow in life.  As the saying goes, “Into every life, a little rain must fall.”

While grief IS common to us all, we mourn for many different reasons.  Most often our mourning is associated with grief due to the death of a loved one or friend, but we can grieve for countless other reasons: divorce, the loss of a job, failing health, past sins, and more.  What is your grief?  No matter what the source, all grief brings feelings of hopelessness, isolation, fear of the future, and anger at God.

When tragedy and loss come into our lives, we can experience a crisis of faith, causing us to ask lots of questions, especially the question of “Why?”.  Years ago, a Jewish Rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a little book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People  – the same issue, by the way, raised by the Book of Job in the Bible.  Both books attempt to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.

Job resolves this question by concluding that human beings can’t comprehend the workings of God, and shouldn’t second-guess God.  The way Kushner answers the question is by pointing out that God is not to be blamed because he isn’t responsible, so we should just learn to trust that God loves us and will care for us.  Unfortunately, neither conclusion is really an adequate answer as to, “Why bad things happen to good people.”

Robert Schuller wrote a book entitled, “The Be-Happy Attitudes.”  In it he says that we are asking the wrong question.  The question, “Why do bad things happen…”  will never yield an answer that satisfies us (Schuler says) – it only provokes argument and debate that calls into question the goodness of God.  It is a mystery God will never reveal in this life.

The question I think we should be asking is not “Why do bad things happen to good people,” but “What happens to good people when bad things happen to them.”  We can answer THAT question because we know from experience the answer.  In fact, that is precisely the question Jesus is answering in this Beatitude:  “When bad things happen to good people,” Jesus is saying, “they will receive comfort from God.”

Last week, we were struck by how odd Jesus’ prescription for happiness sounded.  It’s no different this morning.  “Blessed (or “happy,” as some Bibles translate the word) are, not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn!”  That doesn’t make sense.  I’ve mourned in my life – and I can’t say I was ever “happy” or felt “blessed.”

Yet Jesus would have us believe that, in the midst of our sorrow and grief, we can know joy!  As David put it in Psalm 30:11, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

So for the rest of our time together this morning, I’d like for us to focus on just how God “turns our mourning into dancing.”

The good news for those who mourn is that we don’t face our grief on our own.  When we have faith in God, he gives us all the resources we need to turn our mourning into dancing.

According to the scriptures, there are at least six things God gives us to help us cope with our grief, each of which begin with the letter “C.”

First of all, God gives us…

1)  Consolation in our Pain.

Our text says that those who mourn will be comforted.  One of the meanings of “comfort” is to “console” or to alleviate grief and our sense of loss.

God understands our grief better than we know.  His heart was broken on Good Friday, when he ‘loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son’ on the cross of Calvary.  As Romans 8:31-32 puts it:  “If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”  Because God shares our grief, we have a special place in his heart.

Psalm 34:18 offers these words of consolation:  “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Or, in the words of Sir Thomas Moore:  “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.”

So the first “C”  – God gives us consolation in our pain.  Secondly, God grants us

2)  Courage for the Future.

We have seen that one meaning of the word comfort is “to console.”  But there is another connotation of the word, “comfort.”  And that is:  “to strengthen or fortify.”

In other words, the Spirit of God gives us the courage to move forward in life without fear.  Psalm 46:1-2 assures us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear…”

No matter what happens to us in this life, God holds our future in the palm of his hand.  As we love to sing in a favorite hymn, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future;  and life is worth the living just because he lives.”

He gives us courage and assurance. And with that assurance, God grant us

3)  Calm for the Heart.

As you are probably aware from personal experience, grief can often produce a sense of chaos and panic that can cause us distress and despair.

We need to be reminded that at the very beginning of the Old Testament, in the act of creation God’s Spirit hovers over the primordial waters of chaos, and God brings order out of chaos. The New Testament also reminds us that God can bring order out of the chaos of our lives.  In the midst of a storm, Jesus calmed the sea.  So, take heart!  He can calm the turbulence of your life, as well.

In John, chapter 14 (v. 27) Jesus speaks directly to us, when he says, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.   I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  And again, in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

So God gives us consolation, courage, and calm.

God also offers us

4)  Companionship for the Journey.

We need to be reminded, as the song declares, that “when we walk through a storm” we “never walk alone.”

When we walk the lonely path of grief, we are not alone at all.  God walks by our side, and even carries us when we are too weary to take another step.  Like that familiar poem, Footprints, says –  God is our unseen companion, and we can lean on him until we can walk again on our own.

We experience this constant presence and support as the gift of the Holy Spirit, this “companion” – offering consolation and strength in the face of our grief.  Jesus tells us this himself – in John 14:16&18, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter to be with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless.”  And as Jesus departed this earth, his final words to you and me were a reminder of his constant companionship, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat. 28:20).  So, we are not alone in our journey through sorrow.  God is our companion.

Fifth, through our grief, God can give us

5) Compassion for others.

There’s something about experiencing loss in our life that helps our compassion for others grow.  Because we have experienced God’s compassion toward us, we are to turn around and show the same kind of compassion to others.

In John 13:34, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And the Apostle Paul, in Galatians, writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Without God’s grace, the death of a loved one could harden your heart toward God and others.  But once you have known God’s compassion for you in your time of loss, your heart becomes more tender, and you begin to reflect God’s love and compassion onto others in their time of grief.

Grief helps you grow in your compassion.

Which brings us to the sixth and final gift God gives us to cope with our grief – a new

6) Commitment for Ministry.

Finally, scripture challenges us to turn our experience of loss into an asset for the Kingdom of God.

The Bible tells us that “All things work together for good…”  But that doesn’t mean that all things that happen are God’s will, or that bad things are somehow good for us, like bitter medicine – that we should just “grin and bear it.”  No.  It means that, no matter what happens in life, God can bring good out of it.

You may not feel “blessed” by your mourning, but if you will allow him to, God can use your tragic experiences of loss and grief – for his glory.  If you have ever lost someone dear to you, I’d be willing to bet that the person whose comfort and encouragement meant the most to you in your time of grief, was someone who had also lost a loved one – someone who had walked that valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side.

2 Cor. 1:34 says, “Blessed be the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so thatwe may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”

How might God be calling you to transform your grief into grace for others?  How can you take the “lemons” life has thrown at you, and make lemonade?

I believe this is what Jesus means when he says that those who mourn are “blessed.”  They receive all six “C” – they are blessed with the consolation and strength God offers them, and then find ways to turn their loss into victory.

Art Linkletter was no stranger to tragedy.  His daughter died due to drug addiction, and his son was killed in a car accident.  Art struggled for years with questions and doubts about his faith, constantly asking “Why?”  He didn’t ever get any answer.  But he ultimately came to understand the meaning of this Beatitude of Jesus.  When someone asked, “Art, how do you turn a tragedy into a personal triumph?” this is what he said:

“The most difficult thing to do is admit the tragedy – to accept it.  It is something in your life over which you had no control, and God’s plan for us, as we all know, is more than we can fathom.  It’s part of the pattern of life – life and death. Having once admitted and accepted the deep, deep pain of the wound, then you begin to realize that you have expanded your own capability of loving and caring for others.  Until you are hurt you can never truly understand the hurts of others.  Until you have failed, you cannot truly achieve success.  In my own case, the pain in my life started me on a crusade against drug abuse – trying to help young people and families.”

Art Linkletter never got an answer as to “Why bad things happen…”  He finally stopped asking the unanswerable question.  Instead, he opened himself up to the healing power of God, and discovered the “blessing” in the midst of mourning.  And in the process, he found “happiness” – “blessedness” – in helping others.

Friends, grief is a part of life – and we must all pass through that dark valley. There is no escaping it. But Jesus says that, even in our mourning we may find comfort and peace and purpose.  Through God’s grace, God can turn our tragedy into a personal triumph!  Through our grief, God can bring healing and hope – to our lives, and to others.

Then we will be able to sing, along with the Psalmist, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

So, as Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

All those experiencing a time of mourning are invited to stand, as the pastor shares “A Prayer for Mourners:”

Father of all mercies and God of all consolation,
you pursue us with untiring love
and dispel the shadow of death
with the bright dawn of life.
Give courage to these families in their loss and sorrow.
Be their refuge and strength, O Lord,
reassure them of your continuing love
and lift them from the depths of grief
into the peace and light of your presence.
Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
by dying has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life.
Your Holy Spirit, our comforter,
speaks for us in groans too deep for words.
Come alongside your people,
remind them of your eternal presence
and give them your comfort and strength.
Amen.*

 

* http://www.prayer-and-prayers.info/funeral-prayers/prayer-for-mourners.htm

 

#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

The Beatitudes Sermon Series: “The Life God Blesses”

#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

Isaiah 57:14-15 (TEV);  Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20b (PNT – JBPhillips)

Why did you come to worship this morning?  That may seem like a silly question – but it’s not!  Why DID you come to worship today?

People come to church for all sorts of reasons, some of them, not too noble:  Some come out of habit, or because “being seen in church” is good for business. Others, because the weather isn’t good enough to go golfing or fishing.  And there are always those who are here only because their spouse or a parent forced them to come.

All across our community, there are lots of people in worship services who are NOT there for noble reasons – but, of course, none in THIS church!

But I believe that most people who come to worship, come for the right reasons:  they have a desire for fulfillment and meaning in their life – a need for healing and restoration – they are hungry for love and fellowship – they long to experience the joy that seems to elude them.  In short, every one of us has come “looking for happiness,” and we HOPE Jesus is the answer.  Isn’t that really why you are here this morning?

Long ago, another crowd assembled. But, instead of sitting in pews, they gathered on the side of a mountain to hear Jesus preach – We call it:  “The Sermon on the Mount.”

I’m sure they were there on that hillside that day for the same reasons you are here in worship today – Just like you, they were looking for meaning and happiness in their lives, and they hoped that Jesus might be the answer.  Times haven’t changed all that much, have they?  We all long to be happy.

Sometimes I feel like the three couples I heard about one time.  It seems that these three couples went out one evening to treat themselves to a steak dinner.  They arrived at the restaurant where they were given one of those vibrating pagers, and then sent into the bar to wait for their table.

As they waited, a cocktail waitress came up to them and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour,…” and offered to get them a drink.  –  The couples declined.  A few minutes later another waitress came up to take their drink order, and once again they said “No, thank you.”

Then one of the men commented to his friends that their table was probably being delayed on purpose in the hopes that they would order something from the bar first.

Well, it wasn’t long before a third waitress came by and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour…”  At that, one of the wives responded, “Young lady, we’re Methodists, and this is as ‘happy’ as were going to get – so tell them to get us a table!”

If we’re honest, most of us are not as “happy” as we want to be.  Sure, we might “seem” happy to others, but deep down, we know we are not. So, consciously or sub-consciously, we come to church week after week, hoping to learn the secret of happiness.

The crowd that came to hear Jesus that day must have gotten really excited, because when Jesus stood up to speak, one of the very first words out of His mouth was the word “Happy.”  As we read a few moments ago:  “How happy are the humble-minded, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs!”

Of course, that’s not the way we usually quote this verse.  In most of our Bibles, we find the verse translated the way it is printed on the front of the bulletin: “Blessed – blessed are the poor in spirit…”   After all, that is what the word “Beatitude” means – “blessed.”

You know, “blessed” is a word we seldom use.  We may refer to the birth of a baby as a “blessed event,” or, in a eulogy say that the dearly-departed was “blessed with a long life,” but beyond that, we rarely utter the word.   I guess that’s why some translations opt for the word, “Happy.”

The Greek word the Gospel-writer uses here can be translated either “blessed” or “happy.”  But the truth is that the word “happy” just it doesn’t carry the full-richness of the Greek word it is attempting to translate.  “Happiness” can be a very superficial and fleeting emotion. Happiness depends on our circumstances – and when circumstances turn against us, then our “happiness” can disappear!  The Greek word used by Matthew in this passage implies so much more than simple “happiness.”

The Amplified Bible describes the meaning of the Greek word used here this way: it’s the state of being “happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous–with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of (our) outward conditions.”

And, isn’t that the kind of happiness we all are seeking?  We don’t want just to be happy.  We want to experience “life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of our outward conditions.”  What we really want is a” life of blessedness.”

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus launched his sermon with the word “blessed,” he had the rapt attention of his audience.  He was about to give them the secrets to happiness, joy, and fulfillment in life!  You can almost see the crowd lean forward, straining their ears, and standing on their tip-toes in anticipation!

But, you know, I think what they heard next must have disappointed them.  Jesus’ prescription for happiness seems odd, even bizarre – out of sync with life.  The eight beatitudes he outlines sound more like bad news than good news – because they fly in the face of what we have always assumed.

What do you and I assume brings happiness?  Money – Possessions – Power – Prestige – Relationships – Pleasures.  In short, we think our happiness, our “blessedness,” comes from the outside influences in our life.  We believe it’s “who we know” and “what we have” that will make us happy.

But Jesus would have none of that! In giving us these eight Beatitudes, Jesus turns the world’s wisdom on its head!  And, when we stop long-enough to listen to what he actually said, it strikes us as extremely odd, just as it did to those on that hillside that day.

The world says, “Blessed (happy) are the successful, the powerful, the rich, the victors…”  But Jesus says, “Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous) are the poor . . . the grieving . . . the hungry . . . the meek . . . the persecuted!”  Does that sound reasonable to you?  It doesn’t to me!

These Beatitudes have become so familiar to our ears that they have lost their power.  We’ve heard them for so long we have stopped listening. We don’t realize just how shocking and counter-cultural they really are.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount by telling us that the way we usually think about trying to achieve happiness – is all wrong.  In fact, He says, the keys that open the door to happiness are exactly the opposite of what we would expect!

And get this – not only are those things the world tells us will bring us happiness going to fail, Jesus is saying that, in fact, they will produce the exact opposite effect from what we expect – disappointment, disillusionment, sorrow, and destruction.

Years ago, there was a popular song that lamented that people are always “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  Well the same can be said for happiness.  Jesus is telling us that we look in all the wrong places for that, too.

This is why we are going to be devoting eight weeks to a sermon series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, considering the type of “life God blesses.”

That “door to our happiness” has eight locks on it, and right here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us eight keys.  These eight keys are not easy to acquire, but they are well worth the effort.

Jesus promises that, if we take these eight Beatitudes seriously and apply them to our lives, then, by the end of our series, you and I will know the secret to true happiness.  So, let’s look at the first key to happiness:

#1:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Right off the bat, Jesus shocks us.  “Blessed (happy) are those who are – poor.”  Do you believe that?  Go ask your boss to “bless” you by cutting your pay!  Or try sending back your pension or Social Security check!

Could Jesus be talking about “the poor” the way you and I usually think of “the poor?” – those without resources?  “Blessed are the poor?” No, that can’t be right!

“Jesus, you must be crazy!” It doesn’t compute.  Doesn’t everybody KNOW that the rich have it made – that money and possessions are the secret to happiness?  Most of us will do anything to avoid being poor! We’ll resort to lying, cheating, even stealing to avoid the curse of poverty.  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…”  Come on!  He MUST NOT mean what he says here!  Or does he?

For this sermon series, we will primarily be reflecting on the Beatitudes of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew – the version of The Beatitudes we are most familiar with.  But the Beatitudes appear twice in scripture – They also appear in the Gospel of Luke. While these two versions are quite similar, they are not identical – and sometimes the differences alter the meaning somewhat.  So, as we look at this first Beatitude, it is helpful to reflect on the way each Gospel-writer reports it:

According to Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke has Jesus say simply, “Blessed are the poor.”  (period). Which is right?  Well, I think both are right.  Let me explain:

Throughout the New Testament there two different Greek words that are translated with the English word, “poor.” One word describes those we might call, “the working poor” – those who struggle day-to-day, working hard, and yet they still have trouble making ends meet.  That’s NOT the word used here.

The other Greek word translated ‘poor’ – the one found in this verse, means, “the grinding poverty of the very poorest – the beggar beaten-down.”  The root of the word means “to crouch or to cower,” as in “a poverty which beats us to our knees.”  If we simply go by the meaning of this Greek word used by both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is saying, “Blessed is the person who is abjectly and complete poverty-stricken – those who are absolutely destitute.”  Blessed are the poorest of the poor.

Is that what Jesus is saying? Certainly, throughout the Gospels we see that Jesus had special compassion on the poor, and often warned about the dangers of being rich.  In Luke, as soon as Jesus completes reciting the eight Beatitudes, Jesus says this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  You may also recall that Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, it would be consistent if Jesus were to begin his teachings with “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”  In fact, that is exactly what Luke tells us Jesus said.

But according to Matthew’s telling, Jesus used the phrase “poor in spirit.”  What on earth does that mean?  And why might he have put those words on the lips of Jesus?

I believe the explanation is made clear when we consider the translation that lies behind the translation!  Let me explain.

You and I read Matthew’s Gospel in English, but Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek.  As I already mentioned, the Greek word for “poor” here is describing beggars – those who were completely destitute.

But Jesus didn’t preach his sermon in Greek!  Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount in the Aramaic language – the vernacular Hebrew dialect common-people living in Israel at that time spoke.  So, to really understand what Jesus means with this first Beatitude, we have to “reverse-engineer” the translations – from English – to Greek – to Aramaic!  And that is what I believe Matthew is attempting to do when he adds “in Spirit” to the word, “poor.”  (Are you still with me…?)

In Aramaic-Hebrew, what might Jesus have meant?  The Aramaic word for “poor” Jesus probably actually used included connotations that Greek or English cannot easily convey.  Yes, it meant “the poor,” and by extension, “those who are oppressed and down-trodden and humbled by the world”… So far, the meaning is not so different than Greek or English.

But here’s the kicker:  The Aramaic word for “poor” that Jesus actually used that day also implies that, because the poor cannot rely at all on earthly resources, they naturally must place their whole trust – in God alone!  And THAT is why Jesus says they are particularly “blessed!”

Matthew wanted to convey this deeper meaning – and so he uses the phrase “poor – in Spirit.”

Again, this is not to suggest that Luke is mistaken.  It’s clear that God has a special place in his heart for the poor!  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”  So, yes, Luke is right in his version of this Beatitude.  But Matthew is trying to say more.

Matthew’s Jesus is not telling us that we should all strive to be poor so that we can win God’s favor.  He is warning us that we must not think we can rely on ourselves or on our worldly possessions for our happiness – because they are unreliable.  We don’t have be poor to “place our whole trust in God alone.”  But Jesus is saying that those who are poor have an easier time in placing their trust in God – because they have to!

I like the way William Barclay translates this Beatitude in a way that captures the meaning of what I believe Jesus is saying:  “Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness and who has put his whole trust in God.”

This first Beatitude is reminding us to be humble in spirit – not think we are self-made men and women who don’t need God.  Jesus cautions us that wealth and possessions can easily become a spiritual anchor around our necks that can weigh us down and get in the way of our relationship with God.

In Matthew 19:16-22, a well-to-do young man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And do you remember how Jesus replied to him?  “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.”  And the young man walked away dejected.

This first Beatitude teaches the same thing:  To “inherit eternal life,” Jesus says, we have to be able to put our whole trust in God.  If our possessions are standing in the way of our relationship with God, then we need to get rid of them – because, according to Jesus, “If you put your ultimate trust in money, you cannot put your trust in God.”  That is how Jesus can declare that the poor are the most blessed of us all!  They are freed to love God completely.

In closing, let me share what Mark Hart has written about what this Beatitude is saying to us.*  He writes:

To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our deepest human need for God and to grow in that longing and that dependence on a daily basis. It’s only when we realize how badly we need God and how we are nothing without Him that we become worthy of the Kingdom he promises us; when we realize we are the beggars, our gratitude to the Giver (of life) becomes that much greater…

So,

blessed are those who realize their constant need for God over, above and beyond everything else.

Blessed are those not chained to the material and passing pleasures and luxuries of this finite world.

Blessed are those free from anything and everything that would interfere with an ever-growing awe of God’s mercy and love.

Blessed are those who recognize that no matter how their life is going in the eyes of the world, they are successful in heaven when they are faithful on earth.

Blessed are those who need nothing more than God’s love and want nothing more than to share that love with all they encounter. 

And Mark Hart concludes: 

A soul with nothing to lose on earth is a wonderfully dangerous soul, a soul that will lead many to heaven.  Truly blessed are the poor in spirit.

So, in the final analysis, how should we read this Beatitude?  I believe Winston Pendleton got it right when he paraphrased this Beatitude like this:  Here is a test: see if this describes you:

“Happy and content and full of the joy of living are the humble, for they live every day here and now, and they have found the proper relationship between themselves and God.” (repeat)

My friends, are you happy and content, full of the joy of living?  Are you humble of spirit?  Do you live every day in the here and now?  And can you honestly say that you have found the proper relationship between you and God?

If you can honestly say that about your own life, how very blessed – you must be!

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

* Mark Hart   https://lifeteen.com/blog/blessed-the-beggar-the-meaning-of-poor-in-spirit/

 

 

 

 

 

Star Search

Star Search

(A Sermon for Epiphany)

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

Well, the Christmas season is officially over. Today, all the decorations at our church will be taken down and packed away for another year, and no doubt, you have done the same at home.  We already are thinking about Valentine’s Day, and Easter, and summer vacations. We are ready to put Christmas behind us and move on.

But then we come to worship this morning and hear the story of the Wise Men and their journey to find the baby Jesus, and we wonder what on earth the preacher was thinking in choosing such a Christmassy theme.

But the truth is that, in the lectionary of recommended scriptures for each Sunday of the church year, this story of the coming of the Wise Men is not a “Christmas” text at all.  It is a story to be read on Epiphany, which always falls on January 6th, a season of the church year that lasts until the first Sunday of Lent, when we begin the journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

Epiphany is not a very prominent season in the church year – in fact; at Mims UMC, we usually barely mention it.  But since today is the actual day of Epiphany, I decided that this year, it would be good for us to mark Epiphany in our congregation.

Epiphany is overlooked in many churches, primarily because it is not very clearly understood.  According the lectionary of recommended scripture readings, during this season of Epiphany, we are to recall what seems to be a hodgepodge of stories from Jesus’ life:  the coming of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus, Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, to name just a few.  What on earth do these diverse passages have in common that they should be thrown together during this season?

Well, the clue is found in the meaning of the word “epiphany.”  What does “epiphany” mean?  In general usage, the word has come to mean “revelation,” as when the light bulb over someone’s head pops on, and they have an “ah-ha!” moment.  And that certainly is related to the meaning of the season of Epiphany.  The word itself is best translated “manifestation.”  In each of the stories of this season, we have “ah-ha!” moments as we get a glimpse of just who this Jesus really is.  Whether it is the insight of the Wise Men in seeking the Christ Child, the declaration by the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism that “This is my beloved Son,” the first time Jesus performs a public miracle, or the disciples witnessing the mountaintop meeting between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – each story reveals the true identity of Jesus.  The season of Epiphany falls just after Christmas because the Wise Men are the first to follow the star that identified Jesus as the Christ.

There used to be a TV show I liked to watch. It was called “Star Search,” sort of the precursor of shows like “American Idol” that we seem to find on every channel today.  Perhaps you remember it.  The “stars” they were searching for were amateur performers who were looking for their “big break” into the entertainment industry.  Our text this morning is about a different kind of “Star Search,” . . .  a star search in which every individual is involved.   We ALL are searching the heavens for a “star,” one beckoning us to follow wherever it leads.

Unfortunately, there are many different “stars” out there that we might choose to follow, most of which lead only to disappointment and despair.  Then there is the “Star of Bethlehem,” the one TRUE star that leads us to hop and joy, because it leads us to Jesus.

What is this story really about?  It’s a story about men from a far-away country who, like the shepherds who heard the singing of the angels, were perceptive enough to recognize the revelation of God when it came to them, and who were open to God’s prompting and leading.  Also like the shepherds of Bethlehem, the Wise Men were willing to put their faith into action: Once they received the revelation from God that the Christ Child had been born, they set out on a journey to find him. And, just as the shepherds had done, the Wise Men knelt before the Christ Child and worshiped him.

But who WERE these “Wise Men from the east?” All of us have our own mental picture of the “Wise Men.”  I suppose, for most of us, that image is one of “The Three Kings.”  On our Christmas cards and in our manger scenes, the Wise Men often have crowns on their heads like kings.  And, of course, one of our favorite carols that we will be singing this morning is “We Three KINGS of Orient Are.”

I’ll never forget when I was about 10 years old.  We were living in Perry, Florida at the time.  That Christmas, we put on a musical Christmas pageant in which I had been chosen (against my will, by the way) to be one of the Three Kings.  It was the first time I ever sang a solo. Walking down the aisle of the church all alone, singing, “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain;  Gold I bring the crown him again….”   I was shaking with stage-fright under my cardboard crown and the oversized bathrobe I wore as a costume.  All I can say is that I’m glad those were the days before video recorders!

We all have our own ideas about who the Wise Men were – many of them mistaken ideas.  WERE they kings?  Probably not.

The word Matthew uses for them is “Magi.” According the Joe Pennel, in his book entitled, The Whisper of Christmas, the magi may have been Zoroastrian priests who probably came from Persia (what we know of as Iran, today).

William Barclay described them as “men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and the natural sciences.” Others have described them as fortune-tellers and interpreters of dreams.  Like virtually all people in the ancient world, the Magi believed in astrology.  They believed that IF the order of the heavens was disrupted by an unusual event such as a comet or the appearance of a new star, this marked a major historical event, such as the birth of a new king.

We cannot know for certain what astronomical phenomenon the Magi witnessed, but SOMETHING unusual must have happened – something THEY interpreted to be a sign from God that a new king had entered the world.  They were perceptive enough to notice a new star in the heavens.

But, not only did they SEE the star – they FOLLOWED the star to the Christ Child.  And THAT is why they have been called “Wise.”  For them, their “star-search” was over.

Once they found their way to the house where the Holy Family was staying, they presented Christ with special gifts – gifts which were powerfully symbolic.

You know, I’m glad that the Wise Men didn’t bring the baby Jesus the kind of gifts most of US would think to give a baby. The story would not have nearly as much significance if the Wise Men had presented Jesus with a rattle, a teething ring, and booties.

The power of the story is caught up in the significance of the gifts the DID bring to Jesus:  Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  This morning, I’d like for us to take a few minutes to reflect on the meaning BEHIND the gifts of the Magi.  In the, we can understand something of who this Baby Jesus REALLY is – and also something of what the Christian-life should be like.

The Bible itself doesn’t specify how many Wise Men followed the star, but legend tells us that there were three Wise Men – and even gives us their names:  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar – each bearing a different gift for the Christ Child.

Caspar, so the legend says, was the one to present Jesus with GOLD.

The ancient writer, Seneca, said that no one should ever dare to approach a king without a gift of Gold.  Gold, the “king of metals,” seems to be a proper gift for one who is to be the “King of Kings.”

And, while Jesus WAS a king, he was NOT a king in the worldly sort of way.  His was NOT to be a kingdom ruled by force, but by love.  He would NOT be enthroned in some earthly palace, but rather, in the hearts of men and women.  Those who wish to become citizens of his kingdom must be willing to surrender to his divine authority, and allow him to rule in their hearts and to be the Lord of their lives.

I think Gold is an important gift, NOT because of its value as a precious metal, but because it reminds us that Jesus Christ is our King – and that WE are his subjects.  Therefore, we can never meet Jesus on an equal plain.  We must always meet him on terms of complete submission.

The great British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, always treated his prisoners of war with the greatest respect and courtesy. After one of his naval victories, the admiral of enemy ships that the British had defeated was brought aboard Nelson’s flagship and into his quarters.  Having heard about Nelson’s reputation for courtesy, and thinking that he would take advantage of it, he approached Nelson with his hand out-stretched as if to shake hands with an equal.  Nelson’s hand remained by his side.  “Your sword first,” Nelson said, “and then your hand.”

Before we can know Christ as our personal Savior, we must FIRST submit to him as our Lord and Master.  We must lay our defenses down at his feet in surrender. That is the meaning of Caspar’s offering of Gold – a symbol of tribute laid before the throne of a King.

If the gift of gold was a gift fit for a king, the second gift Jesus received was a gift fit for a priest.

Tradition tells us that Melchior presented the Christ Child with FRANKINCENSE.  Frankincense was a type of incense used by the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God.

We in the Protestant Church have a difficult time understanding the significance of incense.  The aroma of incense is symbolic of the offering of our prayers to God as they ascend to heaven.  In Psalm 141:2 we read, “My prayers rise like incense, my hands like the evening sacrifice.”  The ones who offer these prayers and who burn the incense have always been the priests, both in Jesus’ day, as well as in the liturgical churches of our day.

The function of a “priest” is to open the way to God for humankind.  In fact, the Latin word fro priest is “pontifex,” which literally means “bridge-builder.”  The gift of frankincense, therefore, is to signify that Jesus is to be our “Great High Priest,” who bridges the gap between God and humanity.  The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament reflects this role of Jesus, when the author writes, “But when Christ came as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12)

This is what the incarnation of God in Christ is all about.  This is the TRUE meaning of Christmas – that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” building a bridge allowing us to have fellowship with God.

There is a little story called The Parable of the Birdsthat goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was flock of birds that forgot to fly south for the winter.  Now, it was late in December and it was getting awfully cold. God loved those little birds and didn’t want them to freeze, so he sent his only Son to become a bird, and show them the way to a warm barn where they would be saved from the cold.

Most of the birds were leery of this cocky new bird who said he knew the way to safety.  The leaders of the flock felt threatened by this bird – so they killed him.  But some of the flock believed this new bird and were saved from the cold by flying to the warm barn, just as the new bird had directed them.  Sadly, most of the flock refused to believe this bird, and because they were so stubborn, they froze to death.

God sent Jesus to be our High Priest, to build us a bridge to heaven, and to show us the way in from the cold.  This is the meaning of Melchior’s gift of incense to the Christ Child – that this baby is the “missing link” between God and the world.  Not only is he our King, but also, our Great High Priest.

The third gift the Wise Men brought is perhaps the most difficult to understand.  Belchazzar, so the legend goes, brought as his gift, MYRRH.

The reason why this seems such as strange gift is that myrrh was used in the ancient world for preparing dead bodies for burial.  There is nothing in the Christmas stories more poignant than Belchazzar’s gift of myrrh.  Clearly, if foreshadows the passion and death of the One he had traveled so far to worship.

Holman Hunt painted a famous picture of Jesus. It shows Jesus at the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.  Jesus, still a young man, has come to the door to stretch his limbs that had grown cramped as he labored over the carpenter’s work bench.  He stands there in the doorway with arms outstretched.  Behind him, the setting sun throws his shadow on the wall, and it is in the form of a cross.  In the picture we see the figure of his mother, Mary, as she notices the shadow, and sense her fear as she foresees the coming tragedy of Good Friday.

Jesus did NOT come to live a life of comfort and ease, but to enter into the suffering of men and women.  Many people want an “easy” religion. They want the manger without the cross, the glory without the suffering, the joy without the pain, the prize without ever running the race.

There is a wonderful little poem that I came across, that goes like this:

If there is no cross, there is no Christmas.

If we cannot go, even now, unto Golgotha, there is no Christmas – in us.

Myrrh, although a strange gift for a child, was none the less appropriate – for it reminds us that, not ONLY did Jesus come into the world to be our King and to be our High Priest, but he also came as One willing to be our Savior.

So, on this Epiphany Sunday, OUR “star search” comes to an end.  Let us not forget the lessons of the gifts that the Wise Men brought: Let us present unto Christ our GOLD, enthroning Him as King and Lord of our lives.  And let us offer him FRANKINCENSE, inviting him to be our High Priest, thanking him for building for us a bridge to God.  But let us also present him with MYRRH, remembering his willingness to suffer with us and die our death, so that we might live forever with him.

But most of all, let us present him with the gift of our lives, for when all is said and done, that is the only gift Jesus really wants.

Let us pray:

We thank you, O God, for the wisdom of the magi, who experienced an epiphany when they observed that new star in the heavens.  They followed the prompting of your Holy Spirit until they found the Christ Child, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that in fact they were actually worshiping you.  As we come to holy communion this morning, may we experience that same epiphany of your presence among us as we behold your Son in the bread and cup we share.   Amen.

From Humbug to Hallelujah

“From Humbug to Hallelujah”

Series:  The Spirit of Christmas

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20 and John 10:10b (RSV)

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night…”

On this night of nights, we hear again the wonderful story of shepherds and angels and a new-born baby laid in a manger.  We imagine ourselves as the shepherds, huddled together in the cold night air, being surprised by the blazing light of an angelic choir announcing the birth of Jesus.  Our hearts pound within our chests as we run with the shepherds into the village of Bethlehem to find the Christ-child.  Along with them we marvel at the sight of the Baby King, and kneel beside them as we pay homage.  And finally, we dance with them, praising God for allowing us to witness the birth of our long-awaited Savior.

Yes, for us, there may be no more charming and delightful scene in all the scriptures than this quaint pastoral tableau of the shepherds of Bethlehem.  We feature them on our Christmas cards.  We give them prominent roles in our Christmas pageants.  We sing about them in our Christmas carols.  We have come to put them on a pedestal, because of the central part they play in the Christmas drama.  And because we think so highly of these shepherds, we may unintentionally attribute to them qualities that they may not have possessed.

When you and I think of shepherds, we tend to see them as noble, honorable, simple, hardworking folk – people we should emulate.  Our idealized view of shepherds is reflected in the nursery rhymes we all grew up with:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And can’t tell where to find them.
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them

Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

And of course, the Old Testament also glorifies shepherds as our role models:  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds; Moses spent much of his life as a shepherd; and David was a shepherd boy, who later wrote, in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  Even Jesus compared himself with a Good Shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, and who is willing to lay down his life for his flock.  It’s no wonder we have such a positive view of shepherds.

But I think we miss the power of the Christmas story if we think of shepherds that way.  By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the role of shepherds in society had drastically changed.  Far from being the paragons of virtue we think them to be, shepherds in Jesus’ day were the dregs of society.  Because of their filthy working conditions and the demands of the job, shepherds were unable to observe all the Jewish purity laws or go to worship in the Temple, so they were perpetually considered “ritually unclean.”  And because they were thought to be shiftless and unreliable, they were not even allowed to give testimony in court.  They were looked down on as low-lifes and drifters, people who were to be shunned and ostracized by decent respectable folks.

You see, unlike the shepherds in the Old Testament, most often shepherds in the New Testament didn’t own the sheep they were watching.  They were hired hands, paid to tend someone else’s flock.  In fact, we have good reason to believe that these particular sheep actually belonged to the Temple in Jerusalem, just five miles away – The lambs these shepherds were being paid to watch were destined to be offered in sacrifice to God on the altar – their blood would be shed to take away the sins of the people.  That could explain why the angels might come to these particular shepherds – the baby in the manger would be a sacrificial Lamb far more precious!

In any case, the shepherds in our story were just one step above day laborers, people who couldn’t get work doing a trade or didn’t have the where-with-all to start their own business.  They worked hard for very little pay, with no hope of advancement.  Being a shepherd was a dead-end job.  They were the “working poor” of the first century, and like the working poor today, they had very little hope of ever improving their lot.  They were desperate and hopeless.  If anyone in Israel needed to hear some “Glad tidings of great joy,” it was these shepherds.

And God didn’t disappoint them!  He sent an angel to announce Good News that would change their lives forever – Good News that still has the power to change lives and give us joy and new hope.

In the classic Christmas story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is also desperate for Good News, even though he failed to see just how hopeless his life had become.  And as the story is told, God didn’t disappoint Ebenezer, either.

Instead of sending a choir of angels, you’ll recall that Scrooge received the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future.  The first two Spirits were pleasant enough, but that final “Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come” was more akin to the Angel of Death than the angels who appear to the lowly shepherds announcing a birth.  But, while this Spirit may have used a very different approach to get Scrooges attention, the result was very much the same:  Scrooge’s life was changed forever as he finally embraced the Christ of Christmas:

VIDEO CLIP  (graveyard scene, George C. Scott version)

In the 10th chapter of John, Jesus summarized the reason he came into the world.  He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The reason the shepherds have become so beloved to us is not who they were – it is who they became after their encounter with Jesus.  They followed the leading of the angels, knelt before the Christ-child, and left the manger rejoicing and praising God for his goodness and grace.  Our last view of them is as they go, dancing and singing into the night, witnessing to others of what God had done in their hearts.  We know they can never be the same again.

The same happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character of Scrooge would not have become so identified with the Christmas Spirit, based on who he was early in the story – he is beloved because of who he became after his encounter with Jesus.  He followed the leading of the Spirits, encountered the Christ of Christmas, and woke up Christmas morning a completely changed man, rejoicing and praising God for God’s goodness and grace.  One of our last views of him is dancing and singing, and witnessing to others of what God had done in his heart.  And people were amazed to see the change that had come over him. We know that Ebenezer can never be the same again.

My friends, that is what Christmas is all about – having our lives transformed by an encounter with Jesus – receiving the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas every year – not to observe an ancient custom, not to spend time with family, or get a paid holiday, or go to parties, or give and receive gifts.

We come to the manger year-after-year so we can have an encounter with Jesus that can bring transformation to our lives – that the hope, and peace, and joy, and love of Christ might finally be born in each of our hearts.

Just as Christ was born in the hearts of the shepherds and of Scrooge, so may he be born in your heart and mine, this night.  And may it be said of us what was written of the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that truly be said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!”

May you encounter the Christ this Christmas in such a profound way that he might change all your “humbugs” into “hallelujahs!”

 

The Spirit of Christmas Future

Series: The Spirit of Christmas
#4: The Spirit of Christmas Future
2 Peter 3:2-4a, 8-15a (NLT)

The clock in Ebenezer Scrooge’s bed chamber struck twelve. Scrooge had already been visited by two other “Spirits of Christmas,” Christmases Past and Present. Frightening as their appearances may have been, this final apparition looked to Scrooge like the Grim Reaper himself. The mission of this final Spirit was to reveal to Ebenezer visions of Christmases yet to come, culminating in a sobering visit to his own lonely and forgotten grave. Unless Scrooge changed, this would be his fate.

The visit of the first Spirit had softened his heart, the visit of the second pierced his heart. But it took the painful visit of this third Spirit to actually change his heart. This glimpse into his “future” was what prompted Scrooge to change his “present.” Staring his own death in the face, his life was transformed.

This Advent season, we have been reflecting on the Coming of Christ by taking our inspiration from Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. Just as Scrooge was visited by the Spirits of Christmas, Past, Present, and Future, so we are also visited by three Spirits of Christmas. Two weeks ago, we considered the first coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, and were reminded that we must accept the truth of his identity as the Son of God if we are to ever know the true Spirit of Christmas. Last week, we were reminded that the only way Christ’s first coming will have any meaning for us is when we invite Christ to be born in our hearts today – the Present Spirit of Christmas.

Like Scrooge, our hearts have been softened, then pierced. Now, like Scrooge, we turn our attention to the future of Christmas – a vision of what is to come – a prospect that may be gloomy and fearful to many of us. But if we allow our hearts to be changed, our future can be bright and glorious, instead. Our glimpse at the future Second Coming of Christ can become the catalyst that prompts us to change our present.

I don’t think it is surprising that, of the three aspects of Christ’s coming, it is this future aspect that is the one most avoided. Many people in our world can accept that Christ came in the past, and that he continues to come to us today. But lots of people either fail to consider, or refuse to accept, that Christ will come again in the future.

There are even many Christians who choose to downplay this Biblical teaching, uncomfortable with the image of Christ coming in judgment victory. They embrace the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. But they conveniently overlook the many passages in the Bible (found both the Old and New Testaments) that promise that first there must come the “Day of the Lord,” when Christ will come in glory and sit in judgment. Only then will this new heaven and new earth be possible.

The notion of Christ as a baby bringing peace on earth, and Christ as a Spirit bringing peace in our hearts is easy for people to accept. But this notion that Christ will one day come in victory and judgment to establish an eternal peace seems harder for people to swallow. And, since they don’t believe that we will be held accountable in the future, they don’t see any reason to change.

I don’t think Ebenezer Scrooge believed that there would ever come a day of reckoning, either. And even if there is to be, it was so far in the distant future, he saw no urgency to change. That’s why this third Spirit of Christmas had to visit Scrooge. And, it’s why the final stop on his ghostly tour was at his own tombstone. It was a wake-up-call; a vivid reminder that there was a time-limit for Scrooge to get right with God. And it’s a reminder that there is a time-limit for us, as well.

In our text for this morning, Peter warns us not to scoff at the prophecy of Christ’s return, nor to assume that the slowness of his coming means he will not come. The Day of the Lord will come in God’s own good time. There will be a day of reckoning.

So, what are we to do in the meantime? We are to live today as if Christ were coming tomorrow. Christ’s delay in returning does not mean that we can go on living life any way we want. Christ will come as suddenly and unexpectedly as a thief in the night, and so we had better be ready at all times. In that moment when Christ comes on the clouds of heaven, there will not be time to repent or to accept him as Savior. It will be too late.

You would think that warning would be enough to get people attention and cause them to make their relationship with God their number one priority. But for most people, that doesn’t seem to do it. Many people are like the skeptics Peter wrote about, convinced that, because Christ will come in the distant and murky future (if at all), there is no rush. Like Scrooge, we see no urgency to change.

But the truth is that there is a much more certain deadline. Even though there will be a Day when Christ will come in the future, for each and every person alive, that day for us is the day of our death.

What the Spirit of “Christmas Yet to Come” is telling Scrooge (and you and me) is that for each individual person, NOW is the day of salvation. There is a deadline for coming to faith in Christ – that deadline is our death. Once Scrooge got that message as he knelt beside his own grave, suddenly the urgency of the moment became real.

And his soul comes pouring out. Listen to Scrooge’s newfound faith as he pleads with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, as the Spirit pointed down at Scrooges grave:

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?… Man’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!… Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was.. Why show me this if I am past all hope?… Good Spirit…,assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!” And then came the moment where Christ came to Ebenezer Scrooge: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Stave 4)

Scrooge finally had allowed God to change his heart. His humbugs had been changed to hallelujahs. And, at last, the stage is set for a glorious and joyful Christmas morning!

My friends, what about you? When you think about this Future Coming of Christ, what do you feel? Joy? Or dread?

If you have received Christ into your heart and are living for him, the coming of Christ in glory is something to long for, because it will be a Day when we will stand before the Judgment seat and receive forgiveness of our sin and the gift of living eternally in God’s presence. That is why, in the final verses of Revelation, all those who have received Christ can pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

But what if, when you think of that Day when Christ returns, you like Scrooge, are gripped by fear and apprehension? How you feel about Christ’s Second Coming may give you a clue as to your spiritual readiness to stand before him. For those of us who have the assurance of their salvation, we long for that day. But for those who do not have a relationship with Christ, the Day of his Coming should strike terror in their hearts. And with good reason.

We love to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” But we seldom even read the 36th verse of that chapter: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

If you fear Christ’s return, it may mean that you, like Ebenezer Scrooge, have not given your heart completely over to Christ, and have not received the assurance of your salvation. You know instinctively that you are under God’s wrath, rather than covered by the blood of Jesus that washes away our sins. But if that describes you, you can take heart that there is still time to change your destiny. If you tend to avoid thinking about Christ’s return or are frightened by the prospect, I am pleading with you to seriously reexamine your heart, and give it to Christ this Christmas. For a day is coming at the close of your earthly life when it will be too late to decide. But if you are still alive, it’s not too late for you!

That, writes Peter, is the good news of Jesus’ delay in coming again. “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise… No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent… Our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved.”

Or as the Apostle Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians 6:1-2, “Don’t receive God’s grace in vain. Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The Spirit of Christmas Present

#3: The Spirit of Christmas Present

Series:  The Spirit of Christmas

Gal. 4:4-7  and  Eph. 3:14-19 (NLT)

If you have been in worship over the last two Sundays, you are aware that during this Advent and Christmas season, our sermons are taking their inspiration from the marvelous Christmas novel by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.  No other Christmas book is as well-known or more beloved than the story of the miraculous transformation that took place in the heart of that miserable curmudgeon-of-a-man, Ebenezer Scrooge.   As you will recall, the miracle didn’t happen all at once.  It took the haunting of one ghost and the visits by three “spirits” to work their magic in Scrooge’s life.  Those Spirits, you’ll recall, represented Christmas “Past, Present, and Future.”  After his encounter with those three Spirits, Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning a new man.

This Advent, we also are being visited by three Spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future.  Last Sunday we reflected on the meaning of Christ’s coming in the past as a baby in Bethlehem, and were challenged to accept by faith that the Child in the manger was indeed the Son of God, sent to free us from the sin and the hopelessness that imprisons us.  Next Sunday, we will be focusing on the future advent of Christ – his Second Coming, when Christ will come in victory, to defeat Satan, and once-and-for-all establish his reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  But today, we are visited by that other “Spirit of Christmas:”  The Spirit of Christmas Present.

When we think about the Advent season, the first image that comes to mind is Christ’s first coming, as we sing carols and decorate our homes and churches for the celebration of Christ’s birth.  For many people, that’s the only image they have of Christ’s coming – the baby in the manger 2000 years ago.  For them, Christmas is nothing more than a quaint custom which tradition requires that we observe.

Those of us who may think more deeply about the meaning of the season might also look to the Second Coming of Christ, a hope we as Christ’s followers can cling to, and a promise we claim.

But there is another theme of Advent that is often overlooked:  that Christ continues to come to us even today– but only if you and I are willing to receive him.  It’s too bad that this aspect of Advent has been ignored because, unless we experience Christ’s coming personally in the here-and-now, we can never appreciate the miracle of his advent in the past or the future.

You see, it is possible to intellectually accept that Christ has come in the past, and never go beyond that.  We may recognize him as a historical figure, the Jewish Messiah, a prophet and teacher, a good man, or our role-model and guide.  We may even acknowledge that he is the Son of God. And by saying we can accept these claims about Jesus, we might therefore make the assumption that this means we are “Christians.”  But we’d be wrong – tragically wrong.

Ebenezer Scrooge probably would have accepted all those claims about Jesus, as well.  But it would have been a mistake to have called him a “Christian.” There was a missing piece in the puzzle of his life that everyone was able to see – everyone, that is, except for Scrooge himself.

I’ve got news for you:  Intellectual assent to claims about Jesus’ identity may be essential, but it is not enough to assure our salvation!  As is often pointed out – even the devil and his demons “believe” intellectually that Jesus is the Son of God.  You see, “belief” is not the same as “faith.”  Belief is located in our minds, faith springs from the heart. They say that “the longest journey we will ever take in our lives is the 18 inches from our head to our heart.” This is the lesson that the Spirit of Christmas Present wants us to learn:  Until Christ is born into our hearts and takes up residence there, we are not really Christians.

Like the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” Scrooge’s heart was “two sizes too small.”  Or, if you prefer a more biblical expression, Scrooge’s heart had been “hardened” – he had a “heart of stone.”  It would take a miracle for Scrooge to have a change of heart.  And of course, that is precisely the point.

For Scrooge, Christmas was nothing more than the commemoration of a past event.  Christ’s coming may have transformed the lives of Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Wise Men, but what difference does it make for us today?  For the vast majority of people, both outside and inside the church, Christ’s coming has little or no impact on their lives.  Their religion is all head and no heart. So people occupy the season with office parties and shopping malls and Santa Clause and Frosty the Snowman. In their “Holiday Programs,” Jesus has been demoted to a minor player in the Christmas drama, an “extra” they can do without.  And if people think of Christ’s coming only as ancient history, who could blame them?

 

But you and I know there is much more to Christmas than that. The Christmas story is incomplete, until it is internalized.  The miracle of Christmas isn’t merely that God sent Jesus to be born in a stable – as mind-boggling as that is.  The greatest miracle of Christmas is that it is God’s intention that Jesus be born – in your heart and mine!

But like those in Bethlehem who turned away Mary and Joseph, many of us today shut out Jesus.  We slam the door in his face.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we have “no room in the inn” of our heart for God’s Son. And then we wonder why we are miserable.

Does that describe anyone here this morning.   Are you just going through the motions of the season?  Perhaps you can’t understand what all the excitement is about.  Maybe Christmas is just another holiday for you.  Are you cynical about the claims that Jesus is the Son of God?  In spite of all the holiday cheer that surrounds you, are you miserable inside? Is Christmas just one big “humbug” to you?

If so, there is Good News this morning.  It wasn’t too late for Scrooge, and it’s not too late for us.  Those “Spirits of Christmas” who brought new life to Ebenezer Scrooge can work their magic within us as well, if we will allow them to.  The process of transformation is the same for us as it was for Scrooge:

1) First, we have to recognizewho the Baby in the manger really is (intellectual assent);

2) Once we have recognized who Jesus is, we have to confess the hardness of our heart (repent);

3) The next step is key:  We must invite Christ to be born within us, and take up residence in our heart;

4) And finally, we must allow Christ take charge of our life.

Rev. Edward Markquart summed it all up beautifully in his sermon, entitled “Christmas Magic and Miracle:”

“What is the fullness of Christmas?  When the time is right, when there is fullness of time in your life, when it is the good time, the right time, the appropriate time, God comes down the stairway of the stars with a baby in his arms and places the baby into your hands, and you carefully, carefully examine that baby. Miraculously, the Spirit of that child may come into your heart in a new way.  That is the fullness of Christmas.  For within your heart, you feel and know and experience the pulsating presence of God.  You are filled with grace upon grace upon grace.  You are filled with the truth of God and his great love for you and the whole world, freely given, like the rain and sunshine and the radiant beauty of Christmas Eve, all freely given to you.  That is what the fullness of Christmas is all about; to have the Christ child born in your heart whereby you and I experience and personally know the fullness of God’s grace and truth.” 1

Or as the Apostle Paul put it: “Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him… May you experience the love of Christ… Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”  (Eph. 3:14-16 excerpts)

 

My dear friends, that is point of Christmas.  Until you invite Christ to be born in your heart, you will never understand what all the fuss is about.

Let us pray;

Oh holy Child of Bethlehem!

Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in,

Be born in us today.

1  Edward Markquart. http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/christmas_magic_and_miracle.htm

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Series: The Spirit of Christ

#2: The Spirit of Christmas Past*

Matthew 11:2-6  (NRSV)

It was a cold and dreary Christmas Eve in London.  A crotchety old “humbug” of a man came home from his counting house having worked late into the evening.  He made his way through the dark and dank rooms of his house to his upstairs bedroom, and settled down to eat his Christmas dinner, a bowl of gruel.  There was no Christmas cheer for Ebenezer Scrooge.  While the rest of Christendom celebrated, Scrooge sulked.  The coming of Christ meant only a business day wasted, and the loss of profits.  This Christmas would be no different from all the others,  he would suffer through the holiday again, locking himself away in his cell until all the wasteful frivolity had passed.  As he sat there in the gloomy prison of his own making, he resigned himself to his fate.

Of course, I’m describing that wonderful Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  Our sermons during this Advent and Christmas take their inspiration from the story that Dickens published way back in 1843, a parable of the transformation that the Advent of Christ can make in us when we allow the Spirit of Christmas to work his magic in our hearts.  It reminds us that, no matter how spiritually dead we may be, by the power of God’s grace, we can be born again to a new resurrected life,  an abundant life that is ours when Christ comes to live within us.

Last Sunday, we reflected on this hope that a new life is possible as we focused on the visit by the fearful ghost of Jacob Marley. We took heart that the hope he offered to Scrooge, is also offered to us.  But key to Scrooge’s transformation would be the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: The Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  And, if we are to experience a Christmas transformation in our lives, we too will be confronted by the visits of three Spirits.  During these remaining Sundays of Advent, we will reflect on our own Spirits of Christmas:  Past, Present, and Future – Christ came in the past, Christ still comes to us in the present, and Christ will come again in the future.  Until we are able to affirm those three truths, our lives cannot experience transformation.  But when we have accepted the message of these three “spirits,” we can receive the joy and abundant life Jesus offers us.  Our “humbugs” will be transformed into “hallelujahs!”

So, this morning let us consider “The Spirit of Christmas Past.”

I’m sure everyone here in worship today can accept the historical fact that Christ has come in the past.  We all are familiar with the biblical story of how Jesus was born some 2000 years ago.  Even secular people don’t question the reality that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he preached throughout Israel, and finally died at the hands of the Romans.  The fact is that lots of people who are not active Christians would even go so far as accept the claim that the baby born to Mary was actually the Son of God, the Messiah that for centuries the Jews had been waiting for.  They might even go so far as to say that Jesus rose from the dead.  Yet for some reason, in spite of all those claims, they still fail to live the faith they profess.

But, as professing Christians, we believe.  Don’t we?  We say we do, we profess it with our creeds, we sing it in our hymns and carols, we call ourselves Christians.  Over and over during these weeks of Advent and Christmas, we will declare our faith that Jesus is indeed the Messiah God has sent into the world to save us from our sins and offer us eternal life,  that he is our Emmanuel, the very presence of God with us. As good Christians, our faith in Jesus is unshakable.  Isn’t it?

Or is it?  If there is anything A Christmas Carol teaches us, it is that we ought not to be too smug about our claims to unwavering faith.  We can claim to have faith, but when something happens in lives that calls our faith into question, we can become cynical and even reject our faith.

I suspect that was what had happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.  No doubt, he had been exposed to Christianity in his early years, and may have even at one time considered himself a “Christian.” But somewhere along the way, things happened that soured his faith,  episodes in his life that the Spirit of Christmas Past wanted to reveal to him.  Scrooge had become a jaded Christian.  And that’s why he chose to spend “the most joyous night of the year” alone at home, brooding, sitting in the dark.

If we are honest, you and I have to admit that there is a dark side to our Christmas faith, as well.  We may have faith in public, or when life is going well,  in good times it’s easy to accept the claim that Jesus is the Christ and be joyful. But then, something happens that causes us to doubt our own faith.  When trials and tribulations come into our lives, we begin to question whether Jesus is who he claims to be, or if he actually is a fraud playing a cruel joke on us,  an imposter of a Messiah, not able to deliver on his promises.  The Season proclaims hope, peace, love, and joy, but we don’t feel it.  Instead, we feel imprisoned by circumstances, anxious and fearful.  There is no Christmas cheer for us.

Now, don’t be so smug, you know there are times in our lives when the claims of the Christmas story are a little hard for us to swallow.  In the secret places of your heart, maybe you’re feeling that way today.  We’re told to be cheerful,  we WANT to be cheerful.  But we’re not.  Perhaps you can identify with Scrooge’s dark and somber disposition. Perhaps, for you, Christmas is just one big “humbug.”

Of course, if we were feeling that way, none of us would have the nerve to admit it,  at least not at church. We’d hide it from the preacher; we’d hide it from our friends and family. We’d even try to hide it from God.  To admit our doubts would be tantamount to blasphemy.

But there was one person of outstanding faith who had the audacity to question whether Jesus was who he claimed to be,  a person whose faith seemed to be unshakable.

As you must have already guessed from this morning’s scripture, I’m speaking of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was the one God sent to announce to the world that God had finally come through, that he had sent the world a Savior, the long-awaited Messiah.  And John was faithful in carrying out his mission.

You’ll recall that it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus and witnessed the heavens opening, and heard the voice of God announce, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  It was John who directed his disciples that they ought to begin to follow Jesus instead of him, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Yes, John seemed to have an unshakable faith in Jesus as the Christ.

Until he landed in Herod’s prison, that is.  As he sat in Herod’s dungeon, doubts began to creep into to John’s mind.  He began to question whether or not he had been right about Jesus.  Could it be that he was about to sacrifice his life based on a case of mistaken identity?  Not John’s identity, but Jesus’!

You see, since that day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, John had devoted his ministry to announcing to the world that God had finally sent the Messiah.  Do you remember the boldness of his declaration?  He proclaimed: “Even now the axe is being laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  That’s who John expected the Messiah to be, one who would come on like gang-busters, using his divine authority to mete out judgment against the kingdoms of this world, and usher in the reign of God.

Yes, John was sure of his words.  Therefore, he was willing to risk everything,  even putting his very life on the line, betting that Jesus was the one who would fulfill that prophecy.

But the problem was that Jesus wasn’t acting much like a Messiah. Like most Jews, John may have longed for a nationalistic Messiah, a savior of the oppressed Jewish people. This Messiah would call the people back to faithfulness to God, and then rally them to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression.  He would usher in a new era of greatness for God’s people.  But Jesus wasn’t fulfilling his expectations.

Rev. Patricia Gillespie was an Episcopal priest in Minnesota, who passed away in 2014.  In her wonderful sermon entitled “Are You the One?” (that inspired much of my message today), she describes how John might have been feeling:

“I kind of think John saw himself as a blocker in a football game — a blocker for the running back — the Messiah.  John was clearing the way through the defense, the obstacles, opening up a path for the Messiah to score a victory over the enemy. John had made some beautiful blocks… preaching his heart out, baptizing until he was waterlogged, even sacrificing his BODY blocking for the Messiah.”

“But John looks back and the Messiah doesn’t even seem to be running. Indeed, Jesus appears to have stopped and is helping some injured players, who are not even on his team!  That’s not what the Messiah should be doing! Should he?  Today’s gospel lesson finds John behind bars. He might be thinking, God, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he?”

“’Where’s the fire, the axe, the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this place? I thought I knew my cousin pretty well. I remember that day in the Jordan when I baptized him, what a glorious day. God, your whole plan was being put into play. But where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?’”

As he sat in chains John began to ask, “What if I had been wrong?”  He was about to lose his head (literally), and he wanted to make certain that his martyrdom would be worth the price.  He had to find out.

So, from his prison cell, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question that must have cut Jesus to the quick;  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Ouch!

I think we can all identify with the question John puts to Jesus. It’s one each of us have asked from time to time.  That’s because we all have invested a lot in our faith that Jesus is the Christ.  We have made sacrifices to remain true to our convictions.  We sometimes have risked a great deal for Jesus.  But life has turned hard, and we begin to doubt.  And so, like John, as we sit in our own prisons of circumstance, we may feel like asking Jesus, “Are you really the One, or should I look for someone else to save me?”

*This holiday season finds many people feeling like John might have:  imprisoned, wondering to themselves, “Are you the One, Jesus? Can you speak to me in my prison? Behind my bars of pain? Are you the One? Or should we look for another?”

Many people find themselves in a prison called loneliness this time of year:  Military personnel serving far from home, retirees far from families up north, families broken by divorce or separation, shut-ins, even those with family and friends, but who strangely feel very much alone.  Lonely people often think nobody cares about what they need or think. Well-meaning people ask, “How are you doing?” But don’t really want to take the time to listen to the answer. It seems that no one cares. In loneliness it’s easy to wonder if even God cares.

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us cut through these prison bars of loneliness? Or should we look for another?

Others find themselves imprisoned in a fortress of fear at Christmas: fear about the future, fear for their families, fear for their own health and well-being. John the Baptist must have felt fear as he waited day after day for word of his own fate.  Or imagine the fear for the family whose main wage earner has just lost his or her job!  What’s this going to do to the family?  What about the future?  It could be a lean Christmas for a family in that situation.

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us face and overcome our fears? Or should we look for another?

Christmas finds many people locked in prisons of grief; the loss of a parent, a grandparent, a child, sibling, or friend;  a husband or wife who’s died during the year and won’t be here for the holiday.  Can the light of Christmas penetrate such deep darkness? How can Christmas ever be the same?

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you bring light into this darkest of prison cells? Or should we look for another?

John the Baptist sent some of his followers to Jesus, to ask this same question: Are you the one? And, basically, Jesus said, “Look around you at the evidence, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show?”

Have the blind received sight?  Remember the blind man Jesus met on the road?  Making a paste from the dust in the road, Jesus touched his eyes and his vision returned.  Ask that man, “Is he the One?” And ask the millions of others who have been blind to the truth about themselves and about God, but who’ve found that Jesus opened their eyes.  Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Have the lame walked? Go and ask the man whose friends lowered him through the roof on a mat before Jesus because the man was paralyzed.  Ask him, if you can catch up with him, “Is he the One?” And ask the thousands whose feet never seemed strong enough to stay on the right paths, but in Jesus have found the strength to turn around and walk with God.  Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Have the prisoners been released? Ask that dying thief beside Jesus on the cross, who that very day knew paradise.  Ask him, “Is he the One?” And ask the countless numbers who have found Jesus to be the liberator from the prison of drugs, greed, loneliness, and fear. Ask them, “Is he the One?”

But what of that greatest fear, that great prison?  What of death?  Matthew, who wrote the gospel our text comes from, would encourage us to ask the father whose daughter had died, who heard those simple words, “Little one, arise.”  Ask that father, “Is he the One?” And ask all those who have received in Jesus a resurrection from the dead, an abundant life, a new beginning. Ask them how much difference it makes facing death when the One who rose from the dead promises eternal life to all who believe in him. Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Are you the One, Jesus?  Can you speak to us behind our thick prison walls this Christmas?  Can you give strength to our feet?  Sight to our eyes?  Hope to our hearts?  Wholeness to our brokenness?  Life to our death?  Are you the One, Jesus?

Jesus assured John by telling him to consider the evidence.  John was right that Jesus is the Messiah – he was just mistaken about the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be.  All that talk of “axes laid to the root of the trees, and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire” is a little premature. That will occur in the future, at Christ’s Second Coming.  But for now, the Messiah has come to liberate all those who are in prisons of despair,  to shine light on those who sit in dark dungeons of doubt,  to give hope to all those who have given up all hope.

So, take heart Ebenezer Scrooge.  Because Christ has come, there is hope, even for you.

*Note: Large portions of the material and ideas for this message (especially from the * on) come from an excellent sermon by Rev. Patricia Gillespie who was rector of the East Range Episcopal Churches of the Diocese of Minnesota. Http://www.speravi.com/church/river.htm  Rev. Gillespie died in 2014.  This (my) sermon was preached first in 2009 while Rev. Gillespie was living and I communicated with her asking for her permission to draw from and quote her sermon.  She graciously gave permission.  I offer this sermon in gratitude and tribute to her life and ministry.

The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Sermon Series: The Gospel according to Scrooge

#1:  The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Isaiah 8:20 – 9:3a  (NLT)

This morning is the first Sunday of Advent as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ once again. Year after year, we need to be reminded that, in order for our faith to be genuine, we must constantly be open to welcoming Jesus into our world and into our lives.  It’s also a time when we are reminded of the transformation Christ makes in our lives when we invite him to dwell in our hearts and in our midst.

That’s why, for our Advent and Christmas season this year, our sermons will be inspired by the most beloved Christmas story found outside of the Scriptures.  No Christmas story is more adored, or illustrates the impact Christ’s advent can make on our lives better than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Why has this story about that old curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge become so venerated by generations – so much so that it doesn’t seem like Christmas unless we’ve watched one of the many tellings of the story on film?  I think it is because, we instinctively recognize Christian values and truths that are woven throughout this story.  It is something of a parable that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming in ways all of us can understand.

Many people don’t realize it, but Charles Dickens was a devout Christian.  Even though he was never overt in writing about his faith, all throughout his books and stories Christian principles are held up as the standard we are to live by.  In fact, on the night before his death in 1870, Charles Dickens wrote this in a letter to a friend:  “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in his little book, A Christmas Carol. Hidden in the story are deep insights and truths about the meaning of Christ’s coming, and the impact the advent of Christ has on the hearts of individuals.  There have been countless retellings of this beloved story.  It’s been adapted by the Muppets and cartoon characters.  It’s been turned into stage plays and musicals.  It’s been set in other times and places, in children’s books and television specials.  And of course, there have been multiple movies made of this Dickens tale – it seems that a new one comes out every Christmas season. Even non-Christians and unbelievers have fallen in love with this story of the transformation that is possible when the Spirit of Christ breaks into our lives.

It could be argued that Charles Dickens should be considered one of the most effective evangelists who have ever lived – especially in today’s world where the vast majority of people seldom darken the doors of a church.  Through his story, the seed of the Gospel is planted in unsuspecting hearts, that by God’s grace, may one day grow.  That’s why I have decided that we would spend our Christmas season reflecting on the Spirit of Christmas as seen through the lens of Dickens’ story.  This morning, we will consider “the Spirit of Christmas: Foretold.”

In the Peanuts cartoon strip, Snoopy is sometime depicted as a frustrated author, hoping to write the next great American novel.  There he sits atop his doghouse with an old manual typewriter.  And do you recall the first line of his novel? “It was a dark and stormy night…”

It’s amazing how often authors set their stories in darkness, or in the midst of storms, as if to underscore the seriousness of the drama that is unfolding.  Dickens certainly does this in his novel. For it is in Scrooges’ dark and gloomy bedroom that he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley to warn Scrooge that unless he changes his ways, he too will end up in eternal chains.  Such a gloomy and even frightening scene – it seems an odd choice for a Christmas story.   But in fact, it was perfect – because the darkness of Scrooges house reflects the darkness of Scrooges soul.

Our scripture text from Isaiah speaks of spiritual darkness, as well.  This passage is one of many examples from Jewish scripture that foretell the coming of the Messiah.  There are dozens of Old Testament passages that point to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But our scripture for this morning is probably among the most famous and most important of those prophecies.

Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah warning them to change their ways.  God’s chosen people had turned their back on God and were living self-centered and sinful lives, following idols of their own making.  For centuries prophets had been calling the Jewish people to repent and return to faithfulness. But they continued in their disobedience.  In our text, Isaiah, like Dickens, speaks of the spiritual darkness in which the people were living. But then, he allows a glimmer of hope to shine through:

Hear again, Isaiah’s words, and see if they don’t describe Ebenezer Scrooge: “People who contradict (God’s) word are completely in the dark… They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness.  Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

The people of Judah walked in spiritual darkness. By their words and actions they denied and mocked God’s Spirit.  They were unaware of how lost and in the dark they really were.  If they continued to live in the darkness of their sin, they would face a grim future.  Isaiah and the other prophets God sent named the darkness and foretold the coming of the Light.

That’s why I selected this passage for us to reflect on this morning.  In many ways, Ebenezer Scrooge was just like the people of Judah.  Like them, he lived a selfish life following idols of his own making.  He had denied and mocked God.  He was a lost soul living in spiritual darkness.  Unless he had a change of heart, he was doomed. And like the Jewish people, he didn’t know how lost and in the dark he truly was.

At least, until that dark December night when he was haunted by the ghostly appearance of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Just like the prophets of old, Marley named Scrooges darkness and offered him the opportunity to repent, so he could receive the light of God’s Spirit. In the midst of the darkness and gloom, Marley offers Scrooge an opportunity to change his destiny – he holds out a glimmer of hope.

Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three Spirits who will point his way out of the darkness and into the light.  Scrooge’s life and eternal destiny can be transformed, if only he will take to heart the lessons the three Spirits wish to teach him.

I think the reason A Christmas Carolis so enduring is because so many people in our world today are just like the people of Judah and like Ebenezer Scrooge.  In fact, there is a little bit of Ebenezer in each one of us, too.  We live self-centered lives, following idols of our own making.  By the way we live, we deny and mock God. We reject God’s Spirit. Many of us are living in spiritual darkness, and we don’t even realize it.  The ghost of Jacob Marley haunts the dark chambers of our hearts – unless we change, we are doomed.

But there is hope. The words the Prophet Isaiah spoke to Judah are for us, as well.  The “time of darkness and despair will not go on forever (Isaiah says)… (We) will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when… (we) will be filled with glory.”

There will be “no more gloom for those in anguish,”for a glorious light will shine, dispelling the darkness – the dawning of the Christ.

When Marley departed the gloom of that bedroom, Scrooge was left with anticipation, laced with fear and with hope – fear that the ghosts would force him to look on the dark recesses of his heart; and hope that beyond the darkness of the night, there might be the hope of a new dawn in the morning.

In the three remaining Sundays of Advent, we also will be visited by three Spirits – what I am calling the three Spirits of Christmas:  Past, Present, Future.  Over the next three weeks, we will consider Christ’s coming in history asGod’s incarnate Son in Bethlehem;  we will rejoice that Christ comes to us even today, in the form of his Spirit dwelling in our hearts:  and we will look forward to the coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age.  Then finally, on Christmas Eve, you and I will celebrate with joy the coming of the light of Christ – a dawn that has the power to transform all our “humbugs,” into “hallelujahs!”

The promise of the prophet is good news for us this Advent: 

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

*Video: David C. Scott version.  From when Marley sits through exit out window.  5 min.

That the World May Know

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#6:  That the World May Know

John 17:20-26 (NCV)

It was “Show and Tell” day for a 3rd Grade class at the local elementary school.  The teacher had asked her students to bring something for Show and Tell that symbolizes their core values or belief system.

A boy named Ali was the first to come forward, holding something rolled up under his arm:  “I am Muslim,” he said, “and this is a prayer rug.”  After he unrolled it so the class could look at it, he returned to his seat.

A boy named Benjamin headed to the front of the room and pulled something out of his backpack.  He said, “I’m Jewish.  This is a menorah, and is a symbol of my religion.”  He then sat down.

Next a little girl named Anna came forward.  She removed something from her pocket and said, “This is a rosary, and it’s a symbol of my Catholic religion.”

Finally a boy named Pete moved to the front of the room and carefully pulled something out of a paper sack and said, “I go to the Methodist Church, and this is a casserole dish.”

As I was growing up, I fondly remember “show and tell” days at school. Teachers often used it as a way for them and the other students to get to know one-another better.  It was always interesting to see what items other children selected to bring to school and share with the class – as you might imagine, sometimes the things they brought would be bizarre.  It was even more fascinating to listen to their explanations as to why they chose that particular item.  Show and Tell revealed a lot about who people were and what they thought to be important.  When we had all finished our Show and Tell, we felt we knew one another much better, and had a clearer understanding about what motivated each person.

As I was reflecting on our text this morning, I kept being reminded of those Show and Tell days in elementary school.  Show and Tell is not just a great teaching technique that elementary school teachers have developed, it was a method Jesus used, as well.  Like the “master teacher” he was, Jesus gives his students an assignment, to announce to the world what our core values or belief system is.  He challenges us to go Show and Tell.  And in our Showing and Telling, the world would come to know the God we serve.

Yes, Jesus calls us to Show and Tell.  But he wasn’t about to ask anything of us that he wasn’t willing to do, himself.

The context of our scripture today is the prayer Jesus prayed in the Upper Room the night before his crucifixion.  During that week we call “holy,” over and over Jesus “shows” and “tells” the world who he is, and why he came.

The week began with Palm Sunday.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with adoring crowds who waved palm branches and proclaimed him to be their king.  It was a day filled with symbolic gestures, each one deliberately chosen by Jesus to fulfill Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.  Like the kids in that 3rdgrade class, Jesus was “showing” the world that he was the Messiah and the Son of God.  And, as the week progressed, over and over again, in many and varied ways, he would “show and tell” the world who he is.  Through his actions and words throughout that holy week, we become well acquainted with who Jesus is, and come to better understand what Jesus believed was important.  I think it’s fair to describe Holy Week as God’s “Show and Tell” week.  It was God’s last-ditch effort to “show and tell” by deed and word just how much he loves us.

Our scripture today is smack dab in the middle of God’s “show and tell” week.  Our lesson this morning is the concluding verses of Jesus’ extensive prayer we find recorded in the 17thchapter of John’s Gospel, a prayer that we have been focusing on now for the past month or so.  In the Upper Room following the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for his Disciples, and for all those who would one day come to believe in him through their witness.  And in his prayer, he thanks his Father that, by his coming death on the cross and the glorious resurrection to follow, he would finally show his disciples and all the world who he truly is.  He also thanks God that he has been able to tell the disciples the truth of the Gospel, and that they have been receptive to that truth.  In other words, by his deeds and his words, Jesus has both “shown and told” us who he is.

So, one of the main themes of Jesus’ prayer revolves around Jesus’ Show and Tell, as he reveals his identity to the world in the cross and the empty tomb.  But there is another aspect of Show and Tell at work in the prayer:  Jesus calls on you and me, as his disciples, to also be about the business of “showing and telling.”  It is Jesus’ prayer that, as his disciples, we can also be empowered by the Spirit to “Show and Tell,” – so “that the world may know.”  That for me is the key verse for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ prayer:

“I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching.  Father, I pray that they can be one…  Then the world will believe that you sent me. I have given these people the glory that you gave me so that they can be one, just as you and I are one… Then the world will know that you sent me… “  (John 17:20-23, excerpts  NCV)

What was Jesus’ dying wish?  That you and I might be faithful disciples who will Show and Tell the world who he is.

But sadly, the world around us is far from knowing Jesus. Our society is lost, and it seems to be headed to destruction, yet good faithful churchgoers like you and me often pretend not to see notice.  The lives of the neighbors around us are devoid of meaning and are spiritually hungry, and yet we withhold the spiritual nourishment that would satisfy them and give their lives purpose.  Even members of our own families are floundering through life without a spiritual compass, and we seem not to be overly concerned.  In his prayer, it is Jesus’ most ardent desire that you and I Show and Tell the truth about Jesus, “that the world might know.”

Tragically, that prayer of Jesu is yet to be fully answered. If our mission as disciples of Jesus is to Show and Tell the Good News of salvation through Christ, frankly, we aren’t doing a very good job.  The undeniable fact is that many people in the world around us don’t know Jesus. We’ve failed at our Show and Tell.

In his prayer, Jesus warns us of two pitfalls that can hamper our witness – the reasons unbelievers around us haven’t come to faith:  One is our failure to Show; the other is our failure to Tell.

First, we don’t Show our faith the way we ought to.  At the very close of his prayer, Jesus prays that his love might be evident in our lives…  He says to his Father, “Then they will have the same love that you have for me, and I will live in them.”  Earlier that same evening, Jesus said much the same: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for one another.” (John 13:35)

When our unbelieving neighbors and friends look at our lives, sometimes they don’t see the Glory of Christ dwelling in us.  We don’t always love the way we should.  And since our actions speak louder than our words, people decide all this talk about love they hear from Christians is just that – all talk.  And so, they turn away.  (the ‘nones’ and the ‘dones’)

Another way we fail to show our faith to an unbelieving world is our lack of unity as the church.  (This is a timely word to our denomination right now, as we are struggling with what it means for us to be “united.”)

All throughout his long prayer, Jesus prays for the unity of the Church.  Listen again to what Jesus prays:  “Father, I pray that they can be one.  As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me.”

The secular world looks at all the division and infighting within the Christian church and concludes that they don’t want anything to do with our God.  We preach love and unity, but we practice suspicion, envy, and hostility toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Christians don’t even love each other, how can they claim to love the world?  It’s no wonder many unbelievers are not interested – we have failed to Show them Christ by our love.

But we also have neglected to Tell them about Jesus, as well.  Showing is essential – but Telling is equally important.  Our words must match our deeds, and visa versa.

Jesus’ prayer is that his disciples would tell all the world about the good news of salvation through him.  “I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching.”  The disciples were to testify to the world about Jesus, so that the world would come to believe.

And those first disciples followed through.  They did a miraculous job at spreading the gospel, and you and I are the fruit of their labor.  We believe, because they, and untold millions of other followers of Jesus, have been faithful in passing the truth of God down to us.

But, how well do we do at Telling the story of Jesus?  How quick are we to speak a good word for Christ?  Are we prepared to share our faith when the opportunity presents itself – to tell others about Jesus?  As Peter counseled us in his first letter, “Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have.” (1 Pet 3:15 NCV)

Can you explain your hope in Christ?  The unbelieving world has never heard us share the truth of the gospel in a compelling enough way to cause them to want to surrender their lives to Jesus.  Do we know how to share our faith?  Do we even have a faith to share?  Most of us don’t do as good a job as we ought to in Telling others of our faith.

But there is another way we fall short in Telling others about Jesus: We fail to invite unbelievers and skeptics to come and see for themselves.   Maybe we feel we don’t have the answers or the courage to witness to someone about Jesus.  But we could, at the very least, invite them to church so they might hear the Gospel for themselves.  Many of you do this, I know.  But we could all be much more intentional about this than we are.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we find a story that illustrates the importance of Telling, both in sharing our faith, and by inviting others.  There, we find the story of Jesus as he called his disciples.  The first two disciples who followed Jesus were Andrew and Philip.  Andrew didn’t hesitate to witness to his new-found faith when he told his brother Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”  And Philip simply invited his brother, Nathaniel, to “come and see” and discover Jesus for himself.  Both approaches to evangelism (witnessing and inviting) are essential if the unbelieving world is to come to faith.  We must Tell how Jesus has saved us whenever we get the opportunity, and we must look for opportunities to invite others to worship so they can meet Jesus themselves.  Showing and Telling are both key to helping others to come to Christ. Jesus knew it – and now we do too.

 

So “class,” as your “teacher,” I am giving you an assignment to complete – an assignment for Show and Tell.  I want to challenge each of you to not only Show your faith in Jesus by how you live your life, but also to Tell the truth of God’s love by sharing your own journey of faith with all those who will listen.  Too hard to do?  Then, at the very least, I am asking you to invite two or three people who don’t have a relationship with Christ, or don’t have an active involvement in a congregation, to come and see for themselves, so they might have an encounter with Jesus.  And we’re going to help you do just that:

As you leave this morning, you will be given a couple of invitation cards for you to use as you invite neighbors and friends who are not currently active in a church to join you for our Christmas Eve services.  All the details are printed on the card. (Now, don’t just throw them away or drop them on the floor of your car.  Take them home and pray about who you will give the invitations to, and then follow through, and do it!)

Christmas is a great time to reach out.  Many unchurched people are open to attending these special holiday services –  if they are invited.  One study showed that 41% of people who were formerly churched said that they would return to the local church if a friend or acquaintance invited them. You may be surprised just how many will say “yes,” when they know that the person who invited them really cares about them.

So, I want to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone in the next few weeks and invite folks to come with you to worship during the holidays, especially Christmas Eve.  In fact, why not pick them up and bring them with you? The more welcomed they feel in their visit, the more open they will be to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

The goal is not just to “fill the church” on Christmas Eve (although that would be wonderful to see).  It is so that “the world may know” the Good News of salvation.  Our purpose comes directly from the lips of Jesus:

“I want them to see my glory,” Jesus says plainly in our text. It is Jesus’ hope and prayer that all the unbelieving world would one day behold his glory, and believe. Friends, there are no days in the church year when we see Jesus in all his glory more vividly than the High Holy Days of Christmas and Easter.  It’s a great opportunity for people struggling to find meaning in their lives to have an encounter with Jesus, God’s gift to the world!

So, class, that is your assignment for Show and Tell this week.  Bring a friend with you to worship.  And, who knows?  By your faithfulness in “Showing and Telling,” you may actually win them for Jesus!

And with that, my friends, YOU just might become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

1Thom Rainer & Sam Rainer—From Outreach magazine, “Features,” July/August 2007.