Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year’s Thoughts

Now, more than ever, the wish for a Happy New Year takes on significant meaning. The year 2008 may go down in history as one of the worst, similar to 1968. Unlike 1968, which was filled with bad news that generally didn’t affect most of us personally, the bad news of 2008 affected just about everyone personally. In addition to the economic hits that people were taking, we also had the usual life events: illnesses, deaths, and other personal tragedies. As Thomas Paine wrote during the American Revolution, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” (“The American Crisis”, Thomas Paine, 1776).

These are also the times when we lose faith in our institutions: the government, who was supposed to be protecting our interests; the financial markets, which we entrusted with our savings and our retirement funds; the real estate market; the economy; and Congress, which has a lower approval rating than the President. Hopefully we haven’t lost faith in God.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” I believe we are tough enough to get through this for several reasons. First and most importantly, we have our faith, which upholds us in the worst of times. The strong faith of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian arrested by the Gestapo, sustained her through the unimaginable horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. She survived, although her father and sister Betsy didn’t, and she went on to serve the Lord mightily after the war.

Second, we’re tough because we have hope. We have hope – no only because of our faith – but we know that eventually this crisis will pass. We’ve had a “perfect storm” of economic calamities that have resulted in the current situation, but ultimately things will turn around. While our lives might not ever be quite the same, things will get better than they are now. They won’t get better because of a new year, or probably even because of a new president, but they will get better because things run in cycles. The question is, how long will it take for these particularly nasty cycles to run their course? It could be a while – we just don’t know.

My hope is that the economy and financial markets will improve in 2009, but I also hope that people will turn to God through all of this. I’m hoping we as individuals and this nation as a whole will realize that we can’t keep pushing God out of our lives, and then expect to be blessed. We have been traveling paths that aren’t good, and I’m hoping that this economic turmoil will wake us up to the reality we not only need God in our lives, but God needs to be number one in our lives.

I pray that in this New Year you will commit to drawing closer to God by regularly attending worship, participating in one of our studies, and serving the Lord in some capacity. Things may get worse before they get better, and you’ll need the insight, strength, and guidance that can come only from knowing, loving, and serving God. May God bless you and keep you in this New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Message

Below is my Christmas Eve sermon. I hope is helps you in some way. Merry Christmas!

I. Introduction

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are rather brief. The Gospel according to Luke has the most detailed birth account, and it includes the stories of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus.

II. Luke’s Telling of the Nativity

Although Luke’s birth narrative is fairly brief, it was written to convey some important information about Jesus. Let’s take a look at Luke’s Gospel and see what he is telling us, and what it means for you and me today:

1. Angels Announce God’s Plan

First, we have a number of angelic visitations. In the first visit, an angel announced to Zechariah that he would have a son in his old age, and he was to name him “John.” About six months later the angel appeared to Mary, and told her that she was to miraculously have a Son, and she was to name him “Jesus.” The angel told her that this Son will be the Messiah (Luke 1:32-33, NRSV)

In the Gospel according to Matthew, we see still another angelic visitation, this time to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him to take Mary as his wife – that her pregnancy was the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course we also have the visit of angels to the shepherds. So we see that angels played a major role in the Nativity – and so are prominent in our Christmas carols as well. This is so we can clearly see God’s hand, since heavenly beings – angels –announced both John’s and Jesus’ birth.

2. Birth of John and Zechariah’s Prophecy

The angelic visitations tell us all of this was from God, and prophecy played a prominent role in the Nativity as well. We have, of course, the fulfillment of some Old Testament prophecies that I’ll outline in a minute. In addition, John’s father Zechariah prophesied at John’s bris on the 8th day after his birth. In the first part of his prophecy, Zechariah told of the imminent coming of the Messiah:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…” (Luke 1:68-70, NRSV)

In the second part of his prophecy, Zechariah spelled out his son John’s future role:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
(Luke 1:76-77, NRSV)

By his prophetic word, Zechariah set the stage for both Jesus’ birth and the future ministry of his son, John the Baptist.

3. Year of Jesus’ Birth

Luke begins the actual birth narrative of Jesus by not giving us the date or the season, but he narrows the range of years. He relates Jesus’ birth to secular history by telling who was emperor, who was governor, and that a census was taking place at the time. By linking the birth with secular history, Luke is demonstrating that this birth was a real event, not something fabricated or mythological.

4. House of David

Next Luke gives us an important piece of information: that Jesus is of the house of King David. The proof of this is the fact that they had to go to Bethlehem, David’s town, and further proof is in a genealogy that Luke provides a little later on. This is critical because the Messiah was prophesied to be a descendant of King David.

4. Born in Bethlehem

The prophecies about the Messiah also say that he was to be born in Bethlehem, which is where King David was from. So Jesus fulfilled that prophecy, even though his parents were living in Nazareth. God arranged for circumstances that required them to travel to Bethlehem, something they otherwise wouldn’t have done.

5. Angels Announce to Humble Shepherds

Finally, once again angels appear, this time to the shepherds in the fields. There are three aspects to this angelic appearance to the shepherds that are relevant to us:

a. Angels from God

The first aspect we should keep in mind is that God sent angels to confirm that this was truly the Messiah. So there would be no doubt, the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11):

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” NRSV

An angelic choir then appeared, singing God’s praises, so we can be confident about who was born that night – heaven confirmed it.

b. Appeared to Shepherds

The second aspect we should keep in mind is that these angels appeared to humble shepherds. Not to the priests, not to the rich and famous, not even to the king. Shepherds were on the lower echelons of society, yet they were the first to receive the Good News of Jesus. This demonstrates that God doesn’t care about your station in life – he loves you no matter who you are in this world. After all, Jesus came for everybody: Jew and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor.

c. Jesus Identified with the Humble

The third aspect of this angelic appearance is that by appearing to shepherds, Jesus was identifying with the humble, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Jesus was born in a barn and was raised in the home of a blue collar worker. He can identify with us because he humbled himself and emptied himself, taking the form of a servant as we read in our call to worship. Today he is in heaven interceding for us with the Father.

He is doing this because Jesus can appreciate what we’re going though – he lived the whole range of human experience himself. So during these difficult times, why not put your trust in Jesus? He understands, and he will help you get through whatever is going on in your life.

III. No Room for Jesus

What we often remember most about the nativity story is that there was no room at the inn. There are similar problems today.

1. Not in Our Nation

There seems to be no room for Jesus in this country – we are systematically eliminating him from our society. We are expected to say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” because Christmas has the name of “Christ” in it. So Jesus gets relegated to the barn – there’s just no room for him.

2. Not in Our Lives

There seems to be no room for Jesus in our lives, because our lives are crowded with so many other things. Out of the approximately 120 waking hours we have in a week, there still doesn’t seem to be enough time for even an hour or two with Jesus. So Jesus ends up in the barn – there’s just no room for him.

3. Not in Our Hearts

There seems to be no room for Jesus in people’s hearts – there are just too many other things that have our attention and our affection. So Jesus gets sent to the barn once more – there’s just no room for him.

IV. Conclusion

So what do we learn from all this?

1. Certain about Jesus

First of all, there should be no doubt about who Jesus is. We know Jesus fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, starting with his lineage and his birth place. We know about his miracles, his teachings, and finally his Resurrection, so it should be clear to us that Jesus is the Son of God.

If we believe he is the promised Messiah, the Savior, and the Son of God, then we have to ask: “What are we going to do about it?” We can ignore Jesus – keep him out in the barn – but that doesn’t make much sense if Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, and the Son of God. When we ignore Jesus, we end up filling our lives with stuff that isn’t nearly as important, and has no eternal value.

It reminds me of people who have a garage full of junk and then leave their $40,000 car out in the driveway exposed to the elements. Isn’t it better to clear out the junk and put the car where it belongs? The same is true with us: eliminate the clutter and make room for Jesus.

2. Eliminate Fear and Worry

By the way, sometimes this clutter consists of fear, worry, and anxiety. While we all hope the New Year brings better times, often what’s really needed is an attitude change on our part. Truly letting Christ into your life will give you a whole new outlook – one of hope, assurance, peace, and yes, even joy in the midst of turmoil. With God’s help, we can rise above our circumstances, having confidence that this too shall pass, and that God will take care of us.

Rather than feeling we’re victims, we will realize that in Christ we are victors. This can happen, not by psychological tricks nor by the “power of positive thinking,” but only by our faith in Jesus Christ. Even if you do have Jesus in your life, ask yourself: “How big a role does he really play?” Is Jesus high on your priority list, or is he down towards the bottom?

3. Make Room this Christmas

So starting this Christmas, why not make room – or make more room – for Jesus? After all, what have you got to lose (except maybe your fear and worry)? I pray that this will be your best Christmas ever! Not because of your circumstances, but because of your renewed commitment to Jesus Christ. Have you made room for him in your life and in your heart? If so, Hallelujah! The angels are celebrating tonight. Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Example of Mary

Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays a prominent role in the Christmas story. She is also a tremendous example to the rest of us. The story of Mary begins with the angel visiting her. To link this visit with Elizabeth and John the Baptist, Luke mentions that it occurred in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Since she wasn’t yet married, Mary wondered out loud how her pregnancy was to occur. The angel explained to her that it would be by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a recent example of the miraculous work of God, the angel referred to her cousin Elizabeth by saying (in Luke 1:36-37):

What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (NLT)

Mary responded those famous words of faith and obedience (Luke 1:38a): “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” (NLT)

That’s the attitude that we are supposed to have: faith in God’s word and obedience to God’s calling. We are all called in various ways, and God wants us to be obedient so that God is glorified and we are blessed. As Jesus said in Luke 11:28 (NRSV): “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

Obedience Has a Cost

We have to realize that there is usually a cost to obedience, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. There can be a cost in time, money, inconvenience, hardship, or self-denial. I believe Jesus was referring to the cost of discipleship and obedience when he said in Matthew 16:24: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (NRSV)

1. Costs of Obedience

There were some pretty serious costs to Mary that we don’t often think about, but I suspect she probably considered before saying yes:

For example, there was the disgrace of becoming pregnant before marriage, which was a capital offense in Israel. Although they didn’t stone people for adultery much anymore, a woman’s reputation was ruined by a pregnancy before marriage.

There was a risk of losing her fiancĂ© Joseph. When he found out that she was pregnant and he had nothing to do with it, Joseph was planning to break off the engagement and send her away. An angel had to appear to Joseph to assure him that Mary hadn’t been naughty, and this was God’s work. The angel spoke to him in a dream, saying (Matthew 1:20b-21):

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (NLT)

When the angel said “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” he was referring to the meaning of the name Jesus. Jesus in Hebrew is Y’shua, which means “Jehovah saves.”

Another cost was the stigma that she would carry in her village for the rest of her life, since the people didn’t know about the work of God in her. She would live with a cloud over her the rest of her life because of this “questionable” pregnancy.

Probably the most serious cost was the indescribable grief she bore 33 years after Jesus’ birth. She watched her Son being beaten by the Roman soldiers, being paraded through the streets carrying a cross, being mocked as a criminal by the people along the way, and then she watched as he died an agonizing death on that terrible cross.

(As a parenthetical statement, this suffering by Mary at the cross in no way makes her co-redemptrix along with Jesus, as some in the Roman Catholic Church claim. Only God can redeem the human race once for all, not any one mere mortal. Claiming her as co-redemptrix is heresy of the worst kind and detracts from the finished work of Christ on the cross. Moreover, there is nothing in the Bible that even hints at such a thing – quite the opposite.)

2. Benefits of Obedience

But the benefits of her obedience still outweighed the costs. She mentioned a number of those benefits in her song of praise. For example, she said in Luke 1:46-48a (NRSV): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She had the joy and gratification of being in God’s will and bearing the Messiah, the dream of every Jewish girl.

She also said in Luke 1:48b-49 (NRSV): “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She has been honored throughout the generations, because God did great things for her and thru her as a result of her obedience.

Application to You and Me

This is a season of giving, but we don’t often think of giving of ourselves. Yet out of love God gave of himself by coming to earth, and Mary gave of herself when she agreed to take on the job of being Jesus’ mother. The giving of ourselves can be the best love gift to people, and it is surely the best gift we can offer to God. British missionary William Carey’s famous quote is meaningful to those who have received a calling from God or who are facing a challenge. His quote is: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

Like Mary and Joseph, we may be called by God to walk a path that we never expected, and may seem impossible to us. Sometimes those paths involve facing challenges that seem impossible or even unbearable, and we wonder how we will get through them. That’s when we have to remember what the angel said to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37, NRSV)

We are to listen for God, obey God, and then depend on God. All this involves trusting in God and his promises, expecting great things from God, and then attempting great things for God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let the example of Mary help you to live a life of obedience and trust in God.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Banker’s Greed

It is generally understood that the financial crisis, which caused the economic crisis, resulted from bankers taking unwise risks and making loans to unqualified borrowers. Until the financial crash, these bankers were getting paid huge compensation packages based on earnings that were a house of cards and a disaster waiting to happen.

The government had to provide relief and pump money into a bankrupt system for the good of the country. Despite the purpose of this relief (or “bail out”) package the banks aren’t lending. There are reports that people who want to buy cars can’t because they can’t get a car loan. So it looks as if these greedy and incompetent bankers took the government money and are either sitting on it or using it to make acquisitions. So much for the welfare of the people.

This is a moral lesson. First, the greed and poor judgment of some can cause tremendous hardship on others. Secondly, such people aren’t trustworthy, so there must be stringent conditions, monitoring, regulations, and reporting when you give such people large sums of money. Their behavior is further proof of the depravity of people, who without God in their lives don’t know how to conduct themselves properly. All this happened fast, so I don’t blame the government as much as I blame the crooks on Wall Street. I believe they must be held accountable very quickly, or face severe punishment.

You don’t believe me when I talk about depravity? Look at the governor of Illinois, or Bernie Madoff. While they are rather spectacular examples, many people are engaged in much smaller but nevertheless dishonest dealings of some sort or another. We as a nation are trying to get rid of God, but when you do, you can see what happens. There is no moral compass, no Higher Authority. We are left to our own devices, and it isn’t a pretty picture.

Having said all this, I believe that the lending institutions must give loans only to qualified borrowers. While some people may be complaining to the media that they can’t get a car loan, what we don’t know is that they might have $10,000 in credit card debt and a huge mortgage. Some people have overextended themselves so much that they simply aren’t even remotely qualified for a loan.

We have to get rid of the notion of instant gratification, and accept delayed gratification. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like! Let’s get back to those old fashioned principles, which work the best. My prayer is that this country will turn back to God, not making it a theocracy, but that more people will go to church or synagogue, and learn about God and His ways, which are always the best.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gay Reaction to Rick Warren

I was dismayed with the reaction of some gay activists at President-elect Obama’s choice of Rev. Rick Warren to do the invocation at his inauguration. I saw an interview on TV with one activist who said nothing by lies about Warren. Several points to consider on this:

1. The GLBT folks will have an ally in the White House. Why act up (if you’ll pardon the pun) over such a trivial matter? Let it go.

2. Warren is giving a prayer, not a lecture on homosexuality. This isn’t a cabinet appointment either, but a 30 second prayer.

3. Gays want rights, but are willing to suppress the rights of others. This is the height of intolerance, especially when you spread lies about a person. Practice what you preach.

4. While Rick Warren adheres to the clear teachings of both the Old Testament and the New regarding the practice of homosexuality, he isn’t some hate-filled zealot. He is tolerant (unlike some of the gay activists I’ve seen on TV), works on AIDS projects, and is somebody you can have dialog with.

5. Rick Warren is of the belief, as are many Christians, that all people, including GLBT, are people of worth and must be treated as such. While they may believe the practice of homosexuality is wrong according to the Holy Scriptures, that in no way diminishes a homosexual person as a creation of God. At the same time, there is a dichotomy. Because God instituted marriage as between a man and a woman, Christians can’t recognize same-sex “marriage” as a matter of conscience. Many Christians can, however, agree with a civil union, not as sanctifying a gay relationship, but purely for legal reasons. What gays and their supporters need to understand is the “people of worth vs. Scriptures” tension that Christians face. We didn’t write the Scriptures, but believe they were inspired by God. Therefore, we can’t abandon clear scriptural teachings to accommodate the gay agenda.

6. As Obama has said, we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. If you claim “tolerance” as a cardinal virtue, how about practicing it yourself? Why not take the high road and gain people’s respect, rather than taking the low road and hurt your cause?

I hope that those with agendas will conduct themselves in a more civil fashion and allow people of faith to exercise their rights to practice their religion and have free speech.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thoughts on Advent and the Second Coming

Advent is, of course, a time of preparation for Christmas, which is the celebration of God coming to earth in human form. It helps to be spiritually and emotionally prepared for the holiday. When we’re spiritually and emotionally prepared, we will have the right attitude and can truly appreciate the meaning of the season.

The purpose of the Advent season is to focus on Jesus’ First Coming on Christmas Day 2,000 years ago and what it means to us. But during Advent we should also consider a future event involving Jesus: his Second Coming to earth. None of us were around for the first coming, but it is possible that some of us could still be living when Jesus returns again – we just don’t know. So it is important for us to understand the Second Coming and why it is an important part of our faith.

Why Important

Some people find the End Times frightening, and there are some scary aspects to it. However, the Second Coming of Christ is good news to those who are Christians when he comes to bring his own to him. Mainly, the Second Coming gives people of faith hope. Hope about what?

Hope in that we know how it all will end – we know the ending of the story and the good guys win. It gives us hope in that the rest of the messianic prophecies will be fulfilled at Jesus’ Second Coming, proving that our faith has not been in vain. It gives us hope in that God’s justice will triumph. Finally, it gives us hope in that God’s plan will reach its complete fulfillment in the End Times As we say in our communion liturgy, we look forward to that day when we can feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet.

Why Talk about the Second Coming?

Some may ask, “Why talk about the Second Coming? Many think it will be far into the future, or there will be adequate warning for them to repent. We don’t know the timing, but we should always be prepared to meet Jesus in whatever way it will happen.

Jesus came the first time to accomplish some specific goals, mainly to set us free from the penalty of our sins. His work on the cross allows us to become children of God, adopted members of his household, if we so choose. When we make Jesus our Lord and Savior and accept what he did on the cross for us, we also receive the Holy Spirit to work within us. Then we truly become the clay and allow God to be the potter, molding us and making us into the kind of people we are supposed to be.

Regarding the First Coming of Jesus, the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-5:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. NRSV

At his Second Coming, Jesus will complete God’s plan by putting Satan where he belongs, and restoring the earth to the way it was supposed to be. At that time, the world will recognize Jesus for who he is, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:10-11:

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. NLT

What a great day that will be! We don’t know when the “fullness of time” will be for the Second Coming, so that’s why we should always be prepared and ready. Whether we view it from heaven or the earth, it will be a glorious time. God’s plan will be completely fulfilled, and we will be in the presence of Christ himself forever, as we read in Revelation 21:3-4:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” NRSV

So let us not forget the joy of Jesus’ Second Coming even as we celebrate his first coming on Christmas. Let us also keep in mind what a tremendous gift God gave us on that first Christmas day. Let us also not get so caught up in the frenzy of the holiday that we forget why we are celebrating it. And if you are feeling down this holiday season, remember the hopeful words and prayer in the last two verses of the Bible, Revelation 22:20-21:

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. NIV

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Keys to Success

Want to get some good hints on bringing up your children? See the following article:

Children have fewer problems at school and home when they live with their biological parents and frequently attend religious services, according to a study released today by the Family Research Council's Mapping America Project.

Among their findings: children in this group are five times less likely to repeat a grade, less likely to have behavior problems at home and school, and are more likely to be cooperative and understanding of others' feelings. Parents of these children report less stress, healthier parent-child relationships and fewer concerns about their children's achievement.
From, 12/16/08. © 2008, Focus on the Family Action.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Spend Less, Give More

The results of a new study show that, while most Americans plan to spend less on Christmas presents this year, almost half are now more likely to give to charitable organizations.

A World Vision survey, which was conducted by Harris Interactive, reveals that seven in ten adults (71%) will spend less on Christmas gifts this year, but almost half (49%) said they are now more likely to give to a charity. The study also shows that only 36 percent of U.S. adults say they really need anything as a Christmas gift, while 57 percent say that they still want something. Four in five adults (84%) say they would rather receive a gift that was helpful to others than a personal traditional gift, such as clothing or electronics.

A recent study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University reports that total charitable giving has increased in 39 of the last 40 years — even during times of recession. Americans donate about $295 billion to charity each year, with about a third — $97 billion — going to religious organizations. On average, Christians give 2.5 percent of their income to churches. [,] from The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing, 11/20/08, © 2008 Focus on the Family