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.”

Christmas is almost here!

Christmas Is Almost Here!
The countdown to Christmas continues! We hope you and your family have a joyous Christmas! Here is information you will want to be aware of:

Worship This Weekend
Join us for worship this weekend, at 7:00 p.m. Saturday, or 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. Sunday. Our handbell choir will play again this Sunday at the 11:00 a.m. service.

Christmas Eve
We will have two services: 3:00 p.m. Family-friendly (no communion); 7:00 p.m.. Traditional Candlelight (with communion). Come, and bring your family and friends.

Christmas Gifts/Baskets
Thanks to your generosity, we were able to provide Christmas gifts for the children of five families identified by Pinewood Elementary as needing help. We also provided Christmas gifts for four special needs children living in a foster home here in Mims. This week we will also be providing Christmas baskets (food) to families identified by the elementary schools. It feels wonderful to bless our community in this way!

Memorial Garden Workdays, January 5 and 12
Our Memorial Garden is very much in need of refurbishing. We will do this on the first two Saturdays of January (beginning at 8 a.m.). Bring your tools, gloves and enthusiasm!

New Pastor’s Study Begins January 7
Join us for an eight-week study on “Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why.” The study will focus each week on a different Christian denomination or faith tradition. Come as we explore the essential beliefs and practices of those who are Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist. The goal is to understand our sisters and brothers in Christ, learn to appreciate what they bring to the Christian family, and see what their tradition may offer that would enrich our own Christian faith. The class begins on Monday, January 7 (two session options: 10 a.m. or 6:30 p.m.). You can sign up in worship, or reply to this email (be sure to give your name).

Prayer Requests
Many of our members have experienced health issues and surgeries in the past weeks, they all need our prayers. Please pray especially for theses:
Mary Bashlor – Mary in near death as I write this. The entire family has had a chance to say their goodbyes and are at peace. Mary will be cremated and a memorial service will be held in our church in January. Jack is recovering well from his surgery, and will be staying with their daughter, Sami, as he heals.
Ellie McCoskey – Miss Ellie is in Parrish Hospital recovering from an infection, high fever, and dehydration.
George Neven – George is in Royal Oak for rehab. He needs to regain a better appetite so he can regain his strength.
Gary Stoner – Gary is at Courtney Springs in Merritt Island for more rehab.
Aubrey Little – Aubrey, and his wife, Anita, are facing some difficult medical choices soon. Please keep them uplifted in prayer.

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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

Christmas in full swing at mumc

Christmas and More @ Mims UMC

Christmas is in full swing at Mims UMC!

Dinner Wednesday Evening

Our Wednesday evening dinner tomorrow, Wednesday (5 p.m.) will be Chicken Cordon Bleu.  Cost is $8.  Come early to be sure to get a ticket!  This will be the final meal for 2018.  Meals will resume on Jan. 9.

Potato Bar Dinner and Carol-sing
We will gather Tuesday, Dec. 18 (6 p.m.) to enjoy a baked potato bar, followed by a carol-sing.  Do you know of someone (elderly or mobility challenged) who can’t easily attend events at our church but would like to?  Pick them up and bring them with you!  That is one of the reasons for this event – to bring Christmas cheer to ALL our members, especially those who may feel forgotten or lonely.

Murder Mystery Dinner
This meal is by advance ticket sale only.  If you have a ticket, don’t forget that the dinner is this Friday, December 14.  Meal is served at 6:30 p.m., doors open at 6:00 p.m.  NO TICKETS WILL BE SOLD AT THE DOOR.

Next Pastor’s Study Begins January 7
Beginning Monday, January 7, Pastor John will lead an eight week study on “Christianity’s Family Tree.”  Each week, we will look at  various Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist.  Come learn about our sisters and brothers in the faith.  We will offer two session options:  10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.  Respond to this email to register.

Christmas Eve
We will hold two Christmas Eve services:  At 3:00 p.m. we will hold a family friendly service that is “kid friendly.”  At 7:00 p.m. we will offer our traditional service with candles.  Plan to attend one of these wonderful service, and don’t forget to invite friends without a church home to join you!

Christmas Baskets and Gifts
Our church is providing Christmas Baskets for families identified by the two elementary schools.  If you would like to help, you may make a cash/check donation for “Christmas Baskets.”  We also are looking for folks to prepare homemade desserts to put in the baskets.  Contact Sharon Griffis (321-537-2638).  Also, thanks to your generosity, our church is providing Christmas gifts to children identified by the schools, and others in the community.  In addition, we are providing gifts for four foster children being cared for by a wonderful couple in Mims.  Thanks for all your generosity!

Fundraiser for Mims Fire Victims
You may have heard about the family whose six year old perished in a fire. They also lost everything they owned.  There will be a fundraiser for the Mayo/Rock family at Sonny’s on Saturday, from 12 – 6.  10% of your check will help the family.

Memorial Garden Work Days
Did you know our church has a memorial garden which hold the ashes of several of our members?  It has become overgrown.  We want to return it to it pristine state.  We will hold two work days to accomplish this:  January 5 and 12 (we will start around 8 a.m.).  Bring work gloves and gardening tools.  In case of rain one of those days, we will also work January 19.  You may also contribute to the cost of this project.  Contact Skip Watson for more information.

Don’t forget “the reason for the season!”  Merry Christmas!

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.

What’s Happening at Mims UMC?

What’s Happening at Mims UMC?

We want to keep you updated about what’s happening at Mims UMC.

Wednesday Dinner 
Our Wednesday night dinner today is Shepherd’s Pie.  $8.  Join us!  The following week, December 12, the menu will include Chicken Corden Bleu.  December 12 will be the final meal for 2018.  Meals will resume on January 9.

Cantata This Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
This Sunday at the traditional service, our Choir will present again their Christmas Cantata, “Repeat the Sounding Joy.”  The 7:00 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m. Sunday services will include the second sermon in the Advent series, “The Gospel According to Scrooge” – this week, “The Spirit of Christmas – Past.”

Mystery Dinner – Purchase Tickets by this Sunday
Friday, December 14, beginning at 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:00 p.m.), we will gather at the “Moxley Estate” (aka Fellowship Hall) for a cocktail party murder mystery dinner.  Advance sale tickets are required ($15) and must be purchased by this Sunday.

Potato Bar and Christmas Caroling
We will gather Tuesday, December 18 at 6:30 p.m. for a Potato Bar Dinner and singing Christmas Carols.  We will bring many of our more homebound members to enjoy the evening with us!

Christmas Eve at Mims UMC
This year, we will offer two Christmas Eve services:  a 3:00 p.m. Family-Friendly Service, and a 7:00 p.m. Candlelight Communion service.  Why not invite neighbors and friends to join you for worship?  Invitation cards will be available this Sunday for you to use to invite them.

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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.