GCI Equipper

The Three “Comings” of Jesus

Advent: Jesus then, Jesus now, Jesus in the future

Want to know a secret? I used to think Advent was all about Christmas, and the four common themes of Advent—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love—were symbols reminding us what Jesus brought to this world. While there is truth to what I used to believe, I have come to see that the season of Advent is much more. Advent is derived from Latin and means “to come” or “the coming.” It is a time of waiting with expectation, anticipation, longing and preparation. It reminds us the world yearns for deliverance—a deliverance provided only by the Messiah. It is a time to celebrate that light has come into a darkened world, that hope has arrived in the form of a child, that peace is in our future.

Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas. In 2019, December 1 is the first Sunday of Advent. See, Advent Themes and Symbols, for more details on the themes of Advent as well as descriptions for some of the symbols of Advent.

Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, sums Advent up well. “Advent concerns first and last things. It involves looking back and looking forward. In Advent, we ponder the promises of God from beginning to end.”[1] Gross also refers to the three “comings” of our Lord, and Advent focuses on all three.

Jesus’ glorious return

During the first weeks of Advent, Christians around the world anticipate the return of Jesus. The Advent themes of faith, hope, and preparation might inspire us to cry out “Come, Lord Jesus,” in anticipation of that return. However, the reality of the waiting sinks in and week two’s theme might center around peace or waiting, inspiring us to cry, “How long, O Lord?” The season of Advent reminds us our hope is not yet fully realized; the Messiah has come, but we long for his return to fully establish his kingdom. We live in that “not yet” time of expectation. Just as John the Baptist was in the wilderness preparing the way for the Messiah, we work in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus’ return. We have glimpses of what is promised, which serve to intensify our anticipation. We want others to know about the kingdom, so as we share the gospel, we share the good news of Jesus’ return. He is coming; he will restore all good things; he will heal all; he will usher in the eternal kingdom that will be a blessing for all of humanity.

Jesus’ birth

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. John said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Messiah has come, not in the way many expected, but as a child born to a teenaged Jewish virgin. The angels sang songs of praise, the shepherds worshipped, the magi came from the East to worship, Simeon and Anne worshipped in the temple. The birth of Jesus brought a joy that could not be contained. Advent points to the great celebration of God becoming flesh—incarnation—and being called Emmanuel—God with us. Together we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Jesus living in us

Jesus didn’t come and leave us empty. He lives in us through the Holy Spirit—this is the third “coming” of Advent. This is the great mystery Paul talks about to the believers in Colossae, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The theme for week four of Advent is love: “For God so loved the world…” Throughout the pages of the New Testament Jesus and the apostles write about God’s love and what it means for us to live in that love. We live in him because of his love; he lives in us because of love. He has brought us into the presence of God and to share in the communion he shares with the Father and the Spirit. Jesus came to live in us and let us live in him. This is one of the great messages of Advent.

Jesus then, Jesus now, Jesus in the future. Advent begins the Christian year by looking forward to Jesus’ return and then bringing us back to where it all started. The season is designed to help start the new year focused on Jesus.

Keeping focused,

Rick Shallenberger

[1] Gross, Bobby, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 43.

The Christian Calendar: Ordering our Days

Written by Eugene Guzon, Superintendent of Asia

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for life to go unnoticed due to the busyness, noise, and clutter of each day? If we are not careful, we miss many opportunities to enjoy God’s presence and the deeper revelations of his glory. A couple of weeks ago I was driving up to the mountain city of Baguio in the Philippines and I pulled over to enjoy a particularly beautiful sunset. More recently, I watched the sunrise beyond the mountains of Yangon during a quiet, early morning flight to Myanmar. These two events reminded me of the faithfulness of God. He set the sun to rise and set every single day. It is because of the rising and setting of the sun that we have days— days that turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years, providing us with calendars.

A higher orientation

We use calendars to mark time. In and of themselves, calendars are just a combination of days, but they become meaningful as they are marked by events, occasions and milestones that are personal to us. As Christians, what is important to us is the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Thus, the church at large follows a Christian (some call this Liturgical) Calendar. This annual worship calendar is based on key events in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Thus, you will notice the GCI Worship Calendar begins each year with Advent, which focuses on the three “comings” of Jesus. (Depending on the year, Advent can begin the last week in November or the first week in December.) The GCI Worship Calendar then continues by celebrating Christ’s incarnation at Christmas, and then goes through his life and ministry all the way to Pentecost and the beginning of Ordinary Time. Ordinary time ends with Christ the King Sunday, the week before the beginning of Advent. These recurring seasons allow us to continually focus on Jesus—who he is and what he did for humanity. They help us keep Jesus the center of the center.

While the GCI Christian Calendar is focused on Christ’s physical journey—his birth, baptism, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit—these historical events also point to a deeper divine reality, the ongoing story of salvation. GCI Worship Calendar reminds us that the ongoing story of salvation, the unfolding drama of God’s past, present and future involvement in our lives, all revolves around Jesus. Every day we worship is focused on him—nothing less, nothing more.

Remembrance and Response

In his book Beyond Smells and Bells, author Mark Galli said that our Christian calendar aims to change the way we experience time and perceive (become aware of) reality. By commemorating the different seasons in the Christian Calendar, we are not only given the chance to remember Jesus’ life and ministry, but these events also present opportunities for us to respond in faith and gratitude. For instance, Advent reminds us not just about the One who came, but also inspires within us the hope of his return and the restoration he will bring. Observing Christmas for us means more than parties and presents—we are reminded of the greatest gift to mankind, the One who has come to be God with Us and in whom we have communion with the Father. During Holy Week we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice and death, and we are reminded of our need for his grace and mercy, as well as the full measure of his love already given. Easter gives us the chance to say we are free to live resurrected lives because the tomb is empty, and he is alive. For us it is a symbol of new beginning. Pentecost reminds us of continuing comfort and power in the Holy Spirit—Christ in us—and his ongoing work of sanctification.

Because our God is relational, and his desire for us is communion, the Christian Calendar also serves to remind us there is a time and a reason to gather, to fellowship, and to reconcile. We are participants with Jesus in gathering people, and there is always a time to enjoy our encounter with God in a special way with other saints. Mark Galli also writes in his book that “In the Son, time coexists with eternity.” That is not only the future we look forward to in and through Christ—it allows for an ongoing taste of kingdom life now. This includes togetherness with God and with each other, as well as co-laborers in kingdom building and the ministry of reconciliation.

And so the Christian Calendar compels us to shift our orientation from the busyness and sometimes self-centeredness of our day-to-day, to a bigger reality in Jesus, which we are a part of. It infuses a deeper spiritual dimension to our schedules. As we become more mindful of the seasons, we become more circumspect in how we invest our time, emotions, and energies, and for whom. Ecclesiastes 3: 1  says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” As we reflect on the days that make up our calendars, we can ask… What does God want for me in this season of my life? How do I respond to his revelation of himself? Who am I in light of what Jesus has done? How do I walk in his footsteps and participate in his work of bringing mankind unto himself?

The Christian Calendar helps us to see ourselves, our time, and our journey through the lens and life of Christ. As we number our days, may we grow in wisdom, in trust, in obedience, and in learning to offer each passing moment to Jesus, the God of time.

 

Advent Themes and Symbols

Advent encompasses God’s story from the garden of Eden in Genesis to the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year, says this:

“The biblical scope of Advent stretches from the garden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem in Revelation… In one sense, the whole of the Old Testament is text for Advent: the creation of the world and the fall of humankind, the choosing of one family to bless all families and one nation to bless all nations, the exodus of that nation from captivity, the giving of the law and settling of the land, the choosing of kings and building of a temple, the sins of the people and cries of the prophets, the exile in Babylon, and the return to live under Persians, then Greeks, then Romans, and the long, long wait for the one anointed to come and deliver. This is the history—the story—that leads up to Jesus.[1]

Symbols of Advent           

Many GCI congregations celebrate Advent by having an Advent wreath on a table in the front of the sanctuary. The wreath encircles three purple candles and one rose (or pink) candle. There is a white candle in the middle of the wreath. All is symbolic.

  • The color purple (some use royal blue) symbolizes royalty—fitting as we begin Advent focusing on Jesus returning as King of kings and Lord of lords.
  • The four candles represent the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ. One candle is lit each week along with a Scripture reading and a short devotional.
      • The first purple (or blue) candle traditionally represents Expectation of Hope. (The themes vary among different churches.)
      • The second and third purple candles traditionally represent Peace and Love but some also use them to represent different sequences, such as Faith, Hope and Love or Annunciation, Proclamation and Fulfillment.
      • The rose candle (typically lit on the third Sunday) symbolizes joy and might focus on the joy of worshipping the new-found King, or the joy of Emmanuel, or the joy of the shepherds, or the angels singing in joy.
      • The center candle is white and is called the Christ candle. It reminds us throughout Advent that Christ is the light of the world, the light shining in the midst of darkness. Being in the center reminds us that the incarnation is the center of history and that Jesus is the center of the center.
  • The wreath is designed to remind us of God himself—his mercy and love has no beginning or end.
    • The green of the wreath points to the hope we have in God – the hope of renewal, or eternal life.

As meaningful as the symbols of Advent may be, they pale in significance to Advent telling us the story of God’s plan to redeem the world through his Son.

Typically, the lighting of the Advent is done at the beginning of the service and is followed by a Christmas hymn.

Getting members involved

Advent provides an opportunity to get many members involved.

  • One person reads the theme
  • One person reads the Scripture
  • One person lights the candle
  • You can also have a prayer before or after the candle lighting

Here are the themes and Scriptures for 2019.

December 1: This week’s theme is The Lord is coming. This first week of Advent looks to the future return of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. The prophet Isaiah talks about God’s kingdom being established and there will be no more war. Psalm 122 talks about the peace that comes when we go to the house of the Lord. Matthew reminds us that Jesus said no one knows the day or the hour, but the Lord is coming. The sermon focuses on Romans 13, where we are reminded that salvation is near, and we want to put our hope in Jesus. After the scripture reading, we will light the candle of Hope.

Scripture reading: Isaiah 2:1-5.

December 8: This week’s theme is the arrival of the kingdom. The kingdom, which arrived with Christ, is discussed or hinted at in these passages. Isaiah 11:1-10 describes the kind of supernatural peace and joy of the kingdom. Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 shares a vision of a kingdom well-ruled which presages the wholeness of the kingdom. In Romans 15:4-13, Paul rings out the call of the gospel to the Gentiles—the unity of the kingdom in that now all people are God’s chosen people. Matthew 3:1-12, on which the sermon is based, tells of John the Baptist heralding the arrival of the rightful king—God himself. Prepare the way of the Lord! After the scripture reading, we will light the candle of Peace. (relight the candle of Hope and then the candle of Peace)

Scripture reading: Isaiah 11:1-19.

December 15: This week’s theme is Jesus brought the kingdom of God. The prophet Isaiah said the kingdom is coming and you will see people healed, the blind will see, the mute will sing praises. The Psalmist looked forward to the time when God gives food to the hungry sets the prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. Matthew recounts Jesus telling John’s disciples to describe what they see, “the blind receive sight, the lame walk… the deaf hear, the dead are raised…” Mary sings of this kingdom in her song. The sermon is from Mary’s song in Luke 1 and reminds us that a significant part of the kingdom message is that God has chosen us to participate in this kingdom, today and in the future. After the Scripture reading, we will light the candle of Joy. (relight the candles of Hope and Peace, and then the candle of Joy)

Scripture reading: Luke 1:46-55.

December 22: This week’s theme is the intervention of God. As God’s people, we believed that he not only makes sense of history, he also intervened in it. Isaiah 7:10-16 discusses the intervention of God in the strange, multi-meaning words about a virgin that will one day bear a child. Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 is a lament asking for God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf. In Romans 1:1-7, Paul introduces the gospel as God’s great narrative history throughout history that culminated in God himself entering history. Matthew 1:18-25 tells the story of God’s intervention in the lives of two young people to change history forever. The sermon is on this Matthew passage and tells how God used an uneducated tradesman to be the stepfather to his Son at the grand intervention of the incarnation. After the scripture reading, we will light the candle of Love. (relight the candles of Hope and Peace and  Joy, and then the candle of Love)

Scripture reading: Isaiah 7:11

Lighting of the Christ candle

Scripture reading: John 1:9-14

Happy Advent,

Equipper Team

[1] Gross, Bobby, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), pp. 42-43.

Venue Resources: Christmas Invitations

Joy to the world! Christ is born! During Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, when God became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood. A gift immeasurable, a love incomprehensible. Reflect on the love of Christ this season and invite your neighbors to your Christmas service. Extending an invitation shows your investment in and care for your neighborhood. Click the link below to view the October Church Hack and downloadable Microsoft Word Christmas Service Invitations. #GCIChurchHacks

GCI Worship Calendar

Each week, as we gather in our GCI congregations around the world,  most of our pastors are preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary. Using these same passages, and often the same sermon outlines published in Equipper is incredibly unifying. Reading and responding to the same truth about our Triune God is a wonderful way to create connection within our global fellowship.

The scriptures chosen week to week align with each season of the Christian calendar. As the graphic below illustrates, during each season we celebrate and remember the good news of Jesus. In Advent we celebrate, Jesus is coming; in Christmas, we rejoice, Jesus is born; during Epiphany we commemorate, Jesus is ministering; during Lent, we remember, Jesus is saving; in Easter we rejoice, Jesus is risen, and during Ordinary Time we honor, Jesus is building the church. You will notice that the calendar revolves around the life and ministry of Jesus, always keeping him the center of the center. In reliving these messages of good news each year we are continually transformed.

The GCI Worship Calendar is not compulsory however it is an invitation to more intentionally exalt Jesus as the central focus of our worship. The movement toward a defined calendar brings clarity as to how we worship in GCI and keeps us Christ-centered. It is a season to season reminder of who we are and whose we are.

December begins a new worship calendar year. You can download the 2019-2020 GCI Worship Calendar for your reference. If you like to plan ahead, here is a list of the pericopes for this calendar year.

 

Sermon for December 1, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjKXuFAuZUU

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5 • Psalm 122:1-9 • Romans 13:11-14 • Matthew 24:36-44

This week’s theme is The Lord is coming. This first week of Advent looks to the future return of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. The prophet Isaiah talks about God’s kingdom being established and there will be no more war. The Psalmist talks about the peace that comes when we go to the house of the Lord. Matthew reminds us that Jesus said no one knows the day or the hour, but the Lord is coming. The sermon focuses on Romans 13, where we are reminded that salvation is near and we want to put our hope in Jesus.

Putting on Jesus

Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)

For most churches in the Western tradition, today marks the beginning of the new church year, with the celebration of Advent 1. Advent is the beginning of the journey of the church calendar, which is built around the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus Christ. Advent focuses on the three comings of Jesus—his coming to the world as a child, his coming to live in us, and his final coming as Lord of lords and King of kings. Advent 1 focuses on this final coming and the great hope we have as we anticipate Jesus’ return.

Let’s read the text, and then give a bit of background:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV)

You notice the text begins with “Besides this…” Before going further, we need to ask, “Besides what?” What is Paul referring to? In the verses just before our lectionary passage, Paul has been talking about love. He makes a powerful statement that all the law and commandments are summed up with, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” After making this all-encompassing claim, Paul seems to back up suddenly, as if he realizes the weight that comes with that claim. “How can anyone possibly love in this way? How will I ever be able to do such a thing when I fail so often in loving others?” Paul interrupts this passage on love by showing what prevents us from loving others and from remaining in hope, and then he makes an appeal. He uses a metaphor to remind his readers of something they know—not to tell them something new.

He reminds them that they already “know what time it is.” Paul is not talking about chronological time as if they knew the correct day on the calendar. He was speaking of time in the way a 9-month pregnant woman whose water just broke would speak of time. If she were to walk in the room holding her belly, wide-eyed, and say to her husband, “It’s time,” he would know exactly what she means. It’s time for action. It’s time to set everything else aside and completely focus every thought and action in the moment around what’s about to happen very shortly. This is how Paul means “you know what time it is…”

Let’s see what we can glean from this metaphor on waking up in the morning as it relates to Advent 1 and our salvation being nearer to us now. Using the night to refer to all the darkness of our world and the brokenness in our soul, Paul tells us it is time to “wake from sleep.” Advent, the coming of Christ, is the event of the Eternal One entering our time. In this amazing movement of grace, we find that “the night is far gone, the day is near.”

As we celebrate the coming of Christ during Advent, we know that his coming to us is not stuck in the past event of his birth, nor does it lay beyond our reach at some distant time in the future of his return. His coming is a present reality. It’s in this present reality that Paul wants us to wake up and orient our lives.

The time for us now is the season of advent, and the rehearsing of Jesus coming into the world as a flesh and blood baby born to the virgin Mary. And because we join the story in the year of our Lord 2019, we are bridging the reality of the past event to our present world.

From this reality, Paul wants us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We “lay aside” by “putting on.” Putting on the armor of light is parallel to Paul’s teaching to the church at Ephesus in Ephesians 6:11-18 – Put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes shod for proclaiming the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit – the word of God.

So, does Paul want us Christians to take on the apparel of a 1st century Roman soldier? Do we need training in sword fighting and how to properly use the shield? It is not that complicated. In fact, Paul simplifies his analogy of “putting on” in Romans 13 verse 14 with the direct expression – “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” The very reason that Jesus entered our world is so that he could enter into our individual lives; that he could abide in us and we could abide in him. Not making his home in Bethlehem, Egypt, or Nazareth, rather making his home in us.

The result of putting on Christ is to live “honorably” in the light. Paul wants the church, then and now to be clear about what he means when he says “works of darkness.” In our fast-paced world, it is easy to blur the lines and especially challenging for our young people.

Reveling and drunkenness

This first pair of words is a manifestation of overindulgence. Although Paul mentions two specifics of partying and drinking, we could add a long list of other things that we may be tempted to overindulge in. Enjoying a party or having a drink is not a sin. But if we think the party or drink will bring us the fullness of life, we will party a little too hard and drink a little too much, thinking that maybe the next bash or another round will do the trick. But it never will, because it was never intended to. Parties and drinks cannot do that; neither can shopping, eating, binging on Netflix, playing video games, sports, travel, social media and many other things. Only being clothed in Jesus and wrapped in his love can bring the lasting joy and contentment we yearn for.

Debauchery and licentiousness

What are debauchery and licentiousness? They come when people throw out traditional moral restrictions. Instead of trusting God’s design for human expression of love and sex within the bond of a committed relationship between a man and woman, we turn to satisfy ourselves with our own distortions of relational expression. We settle to define love on our terms rather than put on Christ and be embraced by his sustaining love.

So, again, Paul is encouraging us to “lay aside” such pursuits and instead “put on the armor of light, put on Jesus” When we do this, we will find C.S. Lewis had it right when he said, “Eros ceases to be a devil only when it ceases to be a god.”

Quarreling and jealousy

Quarreling and jealousy come when people are purely thinking and acting out of the flesh. It took God becoming flesh to rescue us from our venomous ways in which we behave toward one another.  Imagine how many quarrels and jealousies would disappear if the human race were clothed in Christ and living in his light? We may not always feel it or see it, but that’s what Advent points to—a new day in Christ.

Jesus has brought us into a new day, and the reality we see now is that we are children of God, wrapped and swaddled in Jesus. When the light of this reality streams into our dark world, we can wake up with a whole new outlook on who we are and rejoice that Jesus is coming, has come and will come.

Jesus is our hope and our help that abides with us and in us. Today we celebrate the reality that we can put on Jesus because that he first put on flesh and blood and became one of us.

Be encouraged, this passage bursts with hope as it tells us, we can set our sights on the second advent as the fullness of our salvation is closer today than it has ever been. Hallelujah!

 

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life”:

  • What are the three beginnings of Advent that “Speaking of Life” refers to?
  • Compare and contrast the celebration of New Years on January 1st and the celebration of Advent 1 which marks the New Year for the Christian calendar. Where is hope found in each?

From the sermon:

  • Discuss how hope in Christ who is growing us to love God and love others helps us deal with the fact that “Love Don’t Come Easy.” How does this inform our struggle to love others?
  • Discuss Paul’s metaphor of “waking up” and how it informs our understanding of the Christian life.
  • Discuss how a “fleshly mentality” can lead to the three pairs of “dark works” Paul mentions.
    • #1. “reveling and drunkenness” – overindulgence
    • #2. “debauchery and licentiousness” – “looking for love in all the wrong places”
    • #3. “quarreling and jealousy” – consumed with proven our worth

 

Sermon for December 8, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf1zAnKC6Dk

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10 • Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 • Romans 15:4-13 • Matthew 3:1-12

The theme of these passages is the arrival of the kingdom. The kingdom, which arrived with Christ, is discussed or hinted at in these passages. Isaiah 11:1-10 describes the kind of supernatural peace and joy of the kingdom. Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 shares a vision of a kingdom well-ruled which points to the wholeness of the kingdom. In Romans 15:4-13, Paul rings out the call of the gospel to the Gentiles—the unity of the kingdom in that now all people are God’s chosen people. Matthew 3:1-12, on which the sermon is based, tells of John the Baptist heralding the arrival of the rightful king—God himself. Prepare the way of the Lord!

John the Baptist: The Wilderness Voice

Matthew 3:1-12 ESV

Introduction: For a fun introduction, sing, play or read the lyrics to Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord from the musical Godspell.

In the 1970s, the play Godspell was popular. The hit song, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” was a big hit on the radio at the time and has been covered by all kinds of bands ever since.

Many are fascinated with the phrase, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Even in the secular time and society in which the musical was first written, there was a fixation with John the Baptist, and with Jesus. Interesting how the truth of gospel fascinates all people, and always will. God may reach out to you through a song or a play in Greenwich Village in the swinging ’70s if the church doesn’t do the trick.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord…

Today we will look at John the Baptist, this mysterious shadowy figure who comes before Jesus and then quickly disappears. He is the “wilderness voice” in Gospels who is proclaiming that the Messiah is coming, and disrupting the system at the same time. Today let’s look at…

  • What it meany in John’s day to be the wilderness voice
  • Paying attention to the wilderness voice in our lives
  • What it means to be the wilderness voice ourselves.

Let’s read the text:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12 ESV)

It’s interesting that John the Baptist is part of our readings in Advent. When we think Advent, we think Christmas. We think Advent calendars— perhaps with Norman Rockwell paintings, and doors that open and chocolates inside. For Americans, we think of that gooey time of the year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Just leave “It’s a Wonderful Life” out on the DVD player, and we’ll play it again in a couple weeks! Good-bye family; see you in a few weeks! We don’t usually think of a rough-cut guy like John when we think of Advent.

Yet here he is throughout the Advent season and throughout the Gospels. And he sounds a bit like a wild man wearing a garment of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey.

We must understand that this scene with John the Baptist didn’t look like the traditional clean-cut picture you may have seen in Sunday school—a white guy and a lot of happy white people in their Sunday best out to have a dip and hear a good sermon.

It was more like a protest with screaming and marching and tear gas in the air. More like people throwing rocks in the streets. I’m not advocating any type of protest – what I’m trying to show is what was going on when John the Baptist came on the scene. He was disrupting the system. And like a protester, he was doing so with some powerful symbols.

Matthew says he was in the wilderness. This little detail is very important, especially to his Jewish audience. You might remember a bit of trivia from a long time ago about the book of Numbers. Numbers is our English title for it, but the original Hebrew title was “Into the Wilderness” or “In the Desert.” The Wilderness—a wild, untamed, dangerous place—is where the story of God’s people started.

So, our first point: What it means in John’s day to be the wilderness voice

John is out in that wilderness, and as it says in verse 6: “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.” John is in the wilderness, and he’s taking them through the water. Does this sound familiar to anyone? John is taking them through the Jordan for a specific reason. He is re-enacting the story of the Exodus—God’s deliverance of Egypt. And now it will be God’s deliverance of all people in Christ.

The Jews were familiar with a similar story of one coming out of the wilderness—Elijah. In 2 Kings 1 we find the story of messengers of the king of Samaria telling the king about a man who gave them a message. When he asked them to describe the messenger they said:

“He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “that was Elijah, the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:8)

Like Elijah, John the Baptist ate what was provided for him. “His food was locusts and wild honey.” The wild honey sounds OK, but locusts? One internet ad talked about the current trend of locust eating: “the crunchy, kosher snack that’s taking Israel by swarm.” Yuck!

We need to be careful with biblical interpretation here. Does God want us all to go eat bugs? Is that the message? No, the message here is that John, like Elijah before him, had dropped out society. He had gotten off the rollercoaster, out of commerce, even out of how most people got food. He is in the desert eating only what God provides directly off the land. There wasn’t a pocket in his camel skin coat with a wallet in it; he wasn’t amassing a fortune or trying to start a political party.

He was the wilderness voice. Just as the prophets before him, especially Elijah, he was someone outside the everyday, self-centered rhythms of human society who was calling for something very new and something very old at the same moment.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord…

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3 ESV)

Now, at that time in history, the Jewish people had come up with a way for Gentile converts to enter their community. When the Gentile wanted to convert, he would be baptized. It was, not an uncommon practice by the time John came along. So, he’s evangelizing, kind of.

Why is everyone so mad at him? Why does he eventually have some sort of run in with an hors d’oeuvres plate in the palace of Herod? What’s everyone so mad about?

Who is he baptizing? He is baptizing Jewish people. He is converting the already converted. Remember that Jesus hasn’t done his work yet, so John’s not preaching the gospel here, like we might. He was calling his people back to the ways of God to prepare for the movement of God, and he was doing so in the boldest, rawest way possible—he’s telling them they have to start over.

What if we held an altar call at church Sunday morning only for those who are already Christians? What if you told Billy Graham that he needed to get saved? That’s what we’re looking at here. John is telling them they need to get back to square one.

To the people whose ancestors came from the wilderness, a voice comes out of that wilderness. To the people whose ancestors passed through the parted sea, he calls them to plunge back into the waters. To the people who practice baptism to bring in new converts, he offers baptism.

The wilderness voice! Not exactly Amy Grant’s Christmas album. But it is still a vital part of the journey of God’s people.

One of my favorite stories of church history is about Bishop Nicholas, who you all may recognize. Later known as St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, his red and white robe is the one thing that lasted. He’s the guy that Santa is based on. But the real Bishop Nicholas in the 3rd century was a strong leader fiercely devoted to the gospel. A particular heretic was gathering a following in the 3rd century at one of the first ever conferences of the global church at the time. Old St. Nick got tired of this guy carrying on, so he jumped down off his throne and punched this guy right in the nose!

John the Baptist is much the same. He is disrupting the system. He is breaking down the old barriers and the old sophistications. Sometimes the voice of God is like this, isn’t it? In order for the new to grow, the old has to be taken away, stripped off, knocked in the nose sometimes.

The voice from the wilderness shakes us, gets our attention, and says “This isn’t all there is! There is more to life, more to God, more to love than just what we’re looking at!”

John spoke to get the people’s attention. His heralding verse can actually be punctuated in two ways:

I’m the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

I’m the voice of one crying, “In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

Christmas can be one of the most disappointing times of the year, , and I’m not talking about how sad you might feel at not getting the present you hoped for. Christmas is the height of our culture’s longing for connection with something greater than themselves, when the “god-shaped hole” in everyone’s heart is particularly open wide. As we stampede into WalMart at 4 a.m. for the Black Friday special, or we watch sentimental movie marathons and spend hundreds of thousands on plane tickets just to see each other for a moment, are we deeply searching for ways for fill our greater need—connection with God? When we are in the wilderness, John tells us to ache for connection with God—this is the taproot, the lifeline of our lives.

John is saying, “Pay attention!” Those of us in the kingdom who know that Christmas—or any other celebration or achievement or possession or relationship on earth—can’t fill us and heal us. Our lives are not pinned on whether we get the right widescreen TV or whether we get those reservations at the right restaurant,—our lives are pinned on Jesus. We want to make straight a path in this wilderness for the Christ of Christmas. We want to share that Jesus is our hope.

John calls out to those of us who know there is something wrong, something missing, something that needs to be reconnected. Jesus is the message of hope for all of humanity. Sometimes it takes the wilderness voice, who has jumped out of society’s rhythms and tail-chasing to remind us of that truth.

How will you prepare him room this Advent? How will you make space in your heart in the midst of black Friday stampedes and close-out sales and distracting sentimentality for the Lord of all the universe? Many of us choose to give more this holiday season, and that’s wonderful. It’s usually the season the church depends on for larger offerings. Many of us will choose to volunteer, which is also wonderful, to give of our time when so much focus is on receiving.

But let’s also look just to the side of us this season. Do you see that tired single mom trying to get her shopping cart out? Do you see people fighting over that Xbox on black Friday? Sit that one out. Buy that mom a coffee. Be a symbol of grace in the jungle of human greed this year. Be a symbol of the hope that is far beyond and far greater than any earthly holiday can bring us.

Now, our second point: What is the wilderness voice in your life today?

Where is God calling you to change—change not in just your mind, but your heart and your actions, the deepest part of who you are? Where are those wounds that Jesus is pointing out deep in you that need healing?

Where is that voice that God is using to call you attention? It may not feel especially wonderful, but God speaks that way sometimes. Sometimes his voice will come to you in the form of someone in camel hair, eating bugs, whose eyes don’t exactly meet. Pay attention.

Finally: Is God calling you to be the wilderness voice?

Is God calling you to speak into a situation or a culture or a group that is going wrong? We think of Christians like Dorothy Day, who spoke up for the rights of women and the poor in her day, and paid for it. Or Rosa Parks, whose most famous quote is “…nah.” She spoke up as the wilderness voice against the racism of her day and paid for it dearly.

Or even some of the most mundane, small details. Chick Fil-a restaurants, which we all know and love, have refused to open their doors on Sundays. They have set it apart, said this day is holy and it is a day to remind us of our great hope. Other restaurants, I believe Burger King and Wendys, have said they would be devastated if Chick-fil-a opened on Sundays. But Chick Fil-A’s owners have refused to change. They believe that the bedrock reality, the reality of Christ, is more important than who sells the most sandwiches. Will God call you to stand out and to stand up? To say my hope and my identity is rooted somewhere far beyond this world?

Now, if that is the case, look at how John approached that high calling.

He first took care of himself. He first made sure he was listening to his own voice. He lived out in the wilderness, eating and clothing himself with only what God provided. Are we able to live with that kind of radical trust? He could speak out of it because he lived it first, not just because he felt like saying it.

There is no shortage of Christians and others out there who elect themselves to be a “voice in the wilderness.” They are ready to judge the world and think of themselves as martyrs. Is that what you want to do? Before you speak with the wilderness a voice, have you been to the wilderness? Are you living in complete dependence on God, forsaking the ways of the world?

We live in a culture, that right now, especially in a time of transition and frustration, romanticizes the wilderness voice. The church has a tendency to do this too, but in our case, it becomes an idol. As if all there is to do as Christians is decry our culture. As our culture drifts further away from its traditional roots, this comes up a lot. We can sometimes justify our judgmentalism and raging frustration because we think we are speaking prophetically. And in the wider culture, especially among younger people, there’s a fascination with those who tear down, those who protest, those who yell the loudest.

Which brings us to the most important thing John the Baptist ever said, John 3:30: “He must increase, I must decrease.” Jesus said there was no greater prophet born of woman than John the Baptist. That is a ringing endorsement, for sure. There is no greater wilderness voice in history, and yet when Christ arrived, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

When we speak that wilderness voice into our culture and the church, we must leave the stage when God arrives. When God starts changing hearts, we give him the spotlight immediately. A great statement many Christians throughout history have used is this: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” The most important thing John the Baptist ever said, in the right circumstances and in the right moment, was good-bye. He prepared the way, and when Christ came, he got out of the way. We know very little about him after that, and that was exactly the way he wanted it. Praise God.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord…

 

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life”:

  • What do you think was going through Isaiah’s mind as he faced the destruction of his nation, and God inspired the prophecy of Jesus?
  • Share a time when all seemed lost to you, and God gave you a glimmer of hope.

From the sermon:

  • Has God ever spoken to you through someone you didn’t expect? Maybe someone from a different culture or value-system, an outsider like John the Baptist?
  • We talked about John the Baptist as the “wilderness voice”—someone who dropped out of society so he could hear from God and speak for God. How do yo think him going “off the grid” helped him fulfill this role?
  • John got into trouble for baptizing those who were already Jewish. This was a highly offensive symbolic act that disrupted society. Does God still use disruption—of society and our own lives—to speak to us?
  • How is God getting our attention this Advent? Is there somewhere he’s calling us to “prepare the way” for him in our own lives and in our community?
  • When Jesus arrives—in our lives, our churches, and our communities—how do we “decrease”? How do we let him take the stage?

Quote to ponder: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works. The future’s in the margins.” —Rachel Held Evans

 

Sermon for December 15, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRIbxnhiKZE

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10 • Psalm 146:5-10 • Luke 1:46-55 • James 5:7-10 • Matthew 11:2-11

This week’s theme is Jesus brought the kingdom of God. The prophet Isaiah said the kingdom is coming and you will see people healed, the blind will see, the mute will sing praises. The Psalmist looked forward to the time when God gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. Matthew recounts Jesus telling John’s disciples to describe what they see, “the blind receive sight, the lame wall… the deaf hear, the dead are raised…” Mary sings of this kingdom in her song. The sermon is from Mary’s song in Luke 1 and reminds us that a significant part of the kingdom message is that God has chosen us to participate in this kingdom, today and in the future.

You Are Chosen to Participate

Luke 1:46-55

Introduction: Share a couple personal stories of how you felt when you were rejected, and how you felt when you were chosen. You can use examples from school, work, home, church or somewhere else.

Few of us have made it through school without feeling left out, overlooked, or not chosen. If you think about it, I’m sure you can remember a number of times when you wanted to be included in something—a team, a project, even a clique—but you were not chosen. While we might be able to laugh about it now, at the time, no matter how old we were, it really hurt.

Many of us can also recall the joy of being chosen—in a sport, in drama, as part of the choir, on a debate team, by our spouse when he or she said, “Yes” and then the joy of hearing those words, “I do.” Being chosen gives us affirmation, encouragement, courage. Knowing we are chosen helps beat depressive thoughts and changes our thought process. Rejection does as well.

Researchers performed a study to see how rejection registers in the brain. Using an online game of catch, three participants were playing together, but then two of the players excluded the third and only threw the ball to each other. An MRI of the excluded player’s brain showed that the areas of the brain that typically show a response to physical pain were engaged, and according to those researchers, maybe “a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm.”

We are made for connection, but humanly speaking, we tend to “qualify” who we connect with based on a set of unwritten cultural rules. We rate others’ value based on what our culture says is valuable. If we consider the mother of Jesus, Mary, for example, we probably would not have chosen her for the job of bearing God’s son. She was poor, young, and inexperienced. But neither would we have chosen the Son of God to come as a baby and be born in a stable.

Let’s face it, we are often at odds with God’s way of choosing, and thank God for that. Because we might not have chosen ourselves to join Jesus in what he is doing. We might be so focused on the reasons God should not include us, that we fail to see ourselves from his eyes. But here’s the truth: God has chosen you, and not just to know him, but to participate in sharing the gospel – the good news that Jesus has brought the kingdom to us.

So how do we respond? I suggest Mary’s response is there for a reason. Not just to show her joy in being chosen, but to show she realized she was doing more than carrying a child – she was participating in God’s plan for humanity.

Like Mary, we have been invited to participate in his plan for humanity—bringing good news to the poor, healing the sick, setting prisoners free, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. We’ve been called to participate in that kingdom now, even as we look forward to Jesus’ glorious return. This is what Advent is all about – one of the comings of Jesus is his coming to live in us and inviting us to participate with him now.

May we respond with the humility and enthusiasm we see in Mary’s response.

Mary has just visited her relative Elizabeth, who is carrying John the Baptist in her womb. Elizabeth says her babe leaped in her womb at Mary’s presence and she pronounced a blessing on Mary. Mary responds with a song of praise.

And Mary said, “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. 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. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

What can we learn about how God chooses people to participate in kingdom life?

Expound on these points with personal examples, or ask the members to share their own personal examples.

  • It’s more about what God can do than what we can do. Mary understands her circumstances and limitations. She knows she is poor, young, and unmarried, but she says God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Despite her lack of credentials, she knows that God can make up for it. He does the same with us.
  • It’s more about having a willing heart than an awesome resumé. Notice how Luke uses present tense in the first verse: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Mary was not given a clear plan or set of steps to follow, yet she was praising God in that moment. We often don’t see the end, but we can trust God that it is good.

Application:

  • Understand the importance of being chosen. Human beings were created for connection, and we need to be “seen,” acknowledged, and appreciated. As the research study showed, when we feel rejected, we are hurt just as badly as if we were physically hurt. Jesus chose you—believe this truth. You are called the beloved—so be loved.
  • Give the gift of acknowledgment. We must try to “see” others, include them, and show them they are valued and loved. Ask God to help you see others from his eyes—as beloved sons and daughters. Some people are easier to acknowledge and love because they fit into the unspoken cultural rules. Others are more difficult, but that means they probably need to be “seen” and acknowledged more.

Oprah Winfrey calls this “validating people,” and in her experience as a talk show host she says that everyone she interviewed always asked afterward, “Was that OK?” It didn’t matter if it was the President of the US or an unknown singer, people wanted to know that 1) they were heard, 2) they were seen, and 3) what they said mattered. Winfrey even asserts that when we get into arguments, we are asking for validation in these three areas.

  • Know that you are chosen by God to love others the way God has loved you. Though we are aware of our shortcomings, we treat ourselves kindly because we know God loves us in spite of any challenges we face. And as a result, we treat others kindly despite their failings because we know God loves them, too.

When the angel Gabriel called Mary the” favored one,” he wasn’t praising her awesome qualifications to be the mother of God’s Son. He was speaking to God’s view of Mary. God knew who she was and who she wasn’t; there were no masks she could hide behind. Likewise, God has chosen us to extend love to those we encounter every day, and God has uniquely equipped each of us for that task. Our response is one of joyful participation because we know God will make up for anything we lack. Our response “magnifies” and “rejoices” in the chance to let others know they are chosen, too.

 

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life” and the sermon:

  • Mary’s response to Elizabeth (outlined in the verse above) takes place a little while after Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. How does time help us process and understand when we’re asked to step out of our comfort zone?
  • Even though Mary didn’t know exactly how everything would work out, she praised God because she knew God knew how everything would work out. Some might say this is the definition of faith, not the absence of uncertainty but the presence of Someone bigger than uncertainty. Can you think of a time when you had a sense that a situation would work out even though you couldn’t predict how that would possibly happen?
  • Can you remember a time when the importance of being chosen was made clear to you? Was it a childhood experience or perhaps watching your own children navigate human relationships with peers?
  • Have you ever noticed how people desire to be heard, seen, and to know that what they say matters? Have you ever acknowledged a person in this way, and if so, what happened?

 

Sermon for December 22, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JTsNFGsqmc

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16 • Psalm 80:1-7 • Romans 1:1-7 • Matthew 1:18-25

This week’s theme is the intervention of God. As God’s people, we believe that he not only makes sense of history, he also intervened in it. Isaiah 7:10-16 discusses the intervention of God in the strange, multi-meaning words about a virgin that will one day bear a child. Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 is a lament asking for God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf. In Romans 1:1-7, Paul introduces the gospel as God’s great narrative history throughout history that culminated in God Himself entering history. Matthew 1:18-25 tells the story of God’s intervention in the lives of two young people to change history forever. The sermon is based on this Matthew passage and tells how God used an uneducated tradesman to be the stepfather to his Son at the grand intervention of the incarnation.

Joseph, the Stepfather of God

Luke 19:1-10 NRSV

One of the greatest novels ever written tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Valjean is released from prison and wanders the French countryside looking for work or a place to stay. But he finds nowhere because of his ex-convict status, and he is rejected over and over.

He finally finds an old country priest who takes him in. He gives Valjean a meal and a bed. In an act of desperation, believing he can only act like a criminal, Valjean steals the old man’s silver and flees into the night.

The police catch Valjean quickly and drag him back to the priest. The priest can crush him like the thief he is. He has every right to put Valjean away forever.

But the old priest takes the ex-con by the shoulders and tells the police he gave Valjean the silver as a gift. He says, “My friend, you forgot the best part.” And he hands him the silver candlesticks.

Valjean goes on to live a life of forgiveness, beauty, and grace because of this act of love. He carries the candlesticks with him wherever he goes, and eventually dies as they flicker on the bedside table. When the priest could have sent him to his death, he showed grace, and it changed the life of a bitter ex-convict forever.

Caught in the act. The offender has no other way to explain their actions. The enforcer has every right to crush that person. There is no question about how this should play out.

Have you ever been caught like this? Some of those stories are funny: having your hand in the cookie jar or joyriding in your parents’ car as a teenager. The light flicks on or the door opens and there you are—busted.

Some of the stories are not as funny. You get caught in the middle of a lie or talking behind someone’s back. Or someone calls you out for being unkind or spreading a hateful rumor. They have you red-handed, in their crosshairs.

We’ve all been on the other side, too. Cornered that rival or busted a family member and suddenly the long arm of what seems like justice is on our side. It can be a wickedly delicious moment to bring the hammer down. We like it more than we think we do.

By rights, the old priest should have put Valjean away forever.

Joseph had Mary caught in a corner. His fiancé suddenly tells him she’s pregnant. This is basically a death sentence at that time in that culture. By rights, he can drag her out to the street by her hair.

We don’t know much about Joseph, the stepfather of God. Even in Greek, there is only about a solid paragraph or two on him in Scripture. He was a tradesman—the word [teknon] means some kind of trade work with his hands. Whether he was a carpenter, stone mason, or worked with metals, we don’t know. But he was blue-collar, and Jesus was born on the side of town where all you had was what you built and work wasn’t just a means of income, but a lifestyle. Work was probably unpredictable and rudimentary. Joseph—the stepfather of God himself—might have been missing a few fingernails and may have said some choice words when he dropped lumber or a stone on his toe.

But we do not even hear him speak. Ultimately, his actions speak to who is, and that seems like the way he wants it. Three lessons we can take from this gentle shadow in Scripture, lessons every man would hope to pass on: grace, wisdom, and love.

Grace…

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)

It was Joseph’s “right” as a fiancé to drag Mary into the street by her hair and put her on public display for execution. As far as anyone could tell, he had been duped. She’d been fooling around on him and now he was embarrassed  in front of the community. It only makes sense—it’s only logical that he would punish her to the full extent of the law.

So often we are faced with what’s “only logical.” You hurt me, so I hurt you. You insulted me, so I undermine you. You stepped on my petunias, so I take you to court. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

But Joseph’s first reaction is grace. This is a small picture of the gospel that was to come. Pre-emptive grace. To divorce her quietly means that he didn’t take his “rights” in this situation.

Is our first reaction grace? Especially when we have all the cards? A quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but actually written by Robert Ingersoll about Lincoln, said: “Nearly anyone can withstand adversity. But, if you want to know the true test of someone’s character, give them power.” This is true grace: to show grace even when you’re in the right, hands down.

Of course, the situation was a little more complex, but Joseph didn’t know that yet. He didn’t have to, though, because grace was who he is.

Grace by every right. Grace that shows mercy when there’s nothing in it for him.

Wisdom

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20 NRSV)

In Joseph, we also see wisdom. I don’t mean wisdom by educational standards—he was probably illiterate and from a backwater town. His hands were rough, and his world was very small.

But Joseph has this tenacity about him, this ability to know when he doesn’t know. He also knows his Bible—he knows the story of his people and what it looks like when God is on the move.

Luke tells this same story, but from the point of view of Mary. While both narratives tell the same story from different perspectives, the one moment they parallel exactly is the phrase “do not be afraid.”

Joseph heard those words and he knew. He saw the angel in the dream, and he knew. He’s surrounded by a rigid, rule-centered culture but he’s able to bend. He’s able to see beyond the moment to the greater story, and that is wisdom.

Another detail came in the names given to this special baby.

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:21-23 NRSV)

The name Jesus was Joshua in the original language. Joshua—the Old Testament hero who took his people to the promised land. It was the name of the deliverer. It was a name as common as John or Mike in our day.

On the other hand, the name Emmanuel was never given to a child, probably because of the expectation it would put on someone. The Hebrew literally translates “God with us.”

The intersection of the everyday and the eternal, the common name and the name of God. Joseph had the wisdom to see that this was something he’d never seen. Do we have that kind of flexibility? Are we paying attention that closely? Wisdom is about watching to see when God’s plan is deeper than what we see on the surface.

Wisdom moves on God’s frequency. Wisdom knows that things don’t always go as we think they will, and yet it moves accordingly.

Love…

Look at John 8:

They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” (John 8:41 NRSV)

Here Jesus is in a tense discussion with the Pharisees about their lineage from Abraham. Commentators speculate that this may have been a taunt, and perhaps something that Jesus grew up with. “We were not born of sexual immorality”—but Jesus, you were. It was most likely the case that Mary’s untimely weight gain and her quick marriage to Joseph raised some eyebrows.

Jesus likely grew up as someone who was whispered about because of this. And Joseph, his father and Mary’s husband, chose to go into that situation out of faith. Joseph might have been whispered about, too. He married a pregnant girl. Grist for the rumor mill; a butt for the jokes. He joined himself to that because he was a man of faith, he put himself in the line of fire.

This is love. Love has skin in the game. Love walks into a complex situation and stays the course. Like all stepparents in history, Joseph walks into a family where the die is already cast. It’s love that keeps him there in the middle of that complexity, taking some of the shame and confusion of it into his own life.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-25 NRSV)

Here’s another example. In an ancient society like this one, the marriage bed was considered a man’s right. The wife had almost no say in the matter. She was his property. Yet Joseph did not take his rights.

Our society, which claims to be more advanced, has some primitive, dysfunctional ideas of its own. We treat sex like a right as well, but from a different angle. We act like any boundary, any limitation, any moral barrier put up in this area is a violation of our rights, as if we should have unbridled freedom in this area as a matter of rights. We’ve made a basic drive into a basic need.

Here we see Joseph walking away from his rights. Consistently, he put his own desires and drives to the side for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand. This fasting from intimacy was a difficult sacrifice and would have been as foreign in his society as it is in ours.

Love. Love to take someone’s checkered story on as your own. Love to wait and restrain and hold back. Love to put yourself second for the long haul.

We learn from Joseph, the stepfather of God, about:

  • Grace—Joseph’s first reaction was to show grace, even though he was well within his rights not to.
  • Wisdom—He put his own expectations on hold and was flexible and responsive in God’s hands.
  • Love—He came into the strangest family situation in history and stayed there with a quiet, persistent presence.

Joseph, the stepfather of God. No doubt Jesus thought of his stepfather’s quiet strength on his own journey, and we should too. Amen.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life”:

  • Why do you think it’s important that Jesus came from a virgin?
  • Share a time Jesus defied one of your expectations.
  • What does it mean, Jesus puts twists of grace in the plot?

From the sermon:

Prepare ahead of time—Play the clip from “Les Misérables” discussed in the last question, “I give you back to God.”

  • Have you ever thought very much about Joseph? Is he a biblical character you draw example or strength from, or is he more of a background fixture?
  • Said about Abraham Lincoln, “Nearly anyone can withstand adversity. But, if you want to know the true test of someone’s character, give them power.” Joseph had all the power in this situation, and his reaction showed his character. Is our first reaction grace—especially when we hold all the cards?
  • We also talked about Joseph’s wisdom— watching to see when God’s plan is deeper than what we see on the surface. Joseph showed grace and wisdom when he refrained from publicly humiliating Mary when he thought he had her “busted.” Have you ever been in a situation where God’s plan was difficult to follow and you had to trust him for wisdom? How do we grow in wisdom?
  • Joseph was a great example of love—a stepparent who walked into the strangest family dynamic in history! He showed that love has skin in the game—“love hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Have you seen an example of this kind of love in your life? What did it teach you about God? About yourself?
  • In the sermon, we talked about one of the great stories of love in a difficult situation: the saga of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (by Victor Hugo). If possible, watch the beginning of the movie until Valjean is forgiven by the priest. The song “Valjean’s Soliloquy” from the musical also summarizes the story. If none of these are available, the story of Valjean and the priest is summarized in the sermon as well. How does this offbeat story show God’s love? Have you ever, like Joseph, seen love come through in an unlikely situation?

Quote to ponder:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”—the old priest, Les Misérables

 

Sermon for December 24 or 25, 2019

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 • Luke 2:1-20 • John 1:1-14

This week’s theme is Christmas—the celebration of the birth of Jesus. This message may be used either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It is recommended you give extra time for singing Christmas hymns. One method would be to alternate Christmas hymns with Scripture readings, or simply telling the story in your own words. There are numerous Christmas videos that will enhance your special service. Do a search but be sure to use only those allowed under your copyright license. The sermon is text heavy; you may want to assign different people to read different parts. Have them practice ahead of time for smooth transitions.

Celebrating Jesus

Luke 2:1-20 NRSV

Read with enthusiasm and excitement:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7 NRSV)

Welcome to the greatest story ever told—the story of God becoming man. We call this story Christmas. Today we will worship in song as we go through the story celebrating the incarnation—when God became flesh.

In Luke 1 and 2 we find the story, which we will read from The Passion Translation:

During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent from God’s presence to an unmarried girl named Mary, living in Nazareth, a village in Galilee. She was engaged to a man named Joseph, a true descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Grace to you, young woman, for the Lord is with you and so you are anointed with great favor.”

This is the same message Christmas gives to each of us.

Mary was deeply troubled over the words of the angel and bewildered over what this may mean for her. But the angel reassured her, saying, “Do not yield to your fear, Mary, for the Lord has found delight in you and has chosen to surprise you with a wonderful gift. You will become pregnant with a baby boy, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be supreme and will be known as the Son of the Highest.

And the Lord God will enthrone him as King on his ancestor David’s throne. He will reign as King of Israel forever, and his reign will have no limit.”

Mary said, “But how could this happen? I am still a virgin!”

 Gabriel answered, “The Spirit of Holiness will fall upon you and almighty God will spread his shadow of power over you in a cloud of glory!

This is why the child born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your aged aunt, Elizabeth, has also become pregnant with a son. The “barren one” is now in her sixth month. Not one promise from God is empty of power, for nothing is impossible with God!” (Luke 1:26-37 TPT)

Imagine the scene—a teenage Jewish girl who is betrothed to a young man named Joe, has her world turned upside down. She’s told she’s going to become pregnant before she gets married—without the consent of her fiancé. You can only imagine the thoughts going through her mind. But notice her reply:

“This is amazing! I will be a mother for the Lord! As his servant, I accept whatever he has for me. May everything you have told me come to pass.” And the angel left her. (Luke 1:38 TPT)

Congregational Song: “O Come, All Ye Faithful”

A few months later, Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant and will soon give birth to John, who will become John the Baptist. Both women praise God and Mary says a prayer, which is called Mary’s Song or Mary’s Magnficat – Magnificat is Latin for “Magnifies” – My Soul Magnifies the Lord. We’ve asked _____ to read this prayer.

Have someone read the Song of Mary.

My soul is ecstatic, overflowing with praises to God! My spirit bursts with joy over my life-giving God!  For he set his tender gaze upon me, his lowly servant girl. And from here on, everyone will know that I have been favored and blessed. The Mighty One has worked a mighty miracle for me; holy is his name!

Mercy kisses all his godly lovers, from one generation to the next.Mighty power flows from him to scatter all those who walk in pride. Powerful princes he tears from their thrones and he lifts up the lowly to take their place. Those who hunger for him will always be filled, but the smug and self-satisfied he will send away empty. Because he can never forget to show mercy, he has helped his chosen servant, Israel, keeping his promises to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55 TPT)

We pick up the story in Luke 2.

During those days, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, ordered that the first census be taken throughout his empire. Everyone had to travel to his or her hometown to complete the mandatory census. So Joseph and his fiancé, Mary, left Nazareth, a village in Galilee, and journeyed to their hometown in Judea, to the village of Bethlehem, King David’s ancient home. They were required to register there, since they were both direct descendants of David. Mary was pregnant and nearly ready to give birth.

When they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor, and there she gave birth to her firstborn son. After wrapping the newborn baby in strips of cloth, they laid him in a feeding trough since there was no available space in any upper room in the village. (Luke 2:1-6 TPT)

Congregational Song “O Holy Night”

That night, in a field near Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared in radiant splendor before them, lighting up the field with the blazing glory of God, and the shepherds were terrified!

But the angel reassured them, saying, “Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere! For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah. You will recognize him by this miracle sign: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!”

Then all at once, a vast number of glorious angels appeared, the very armies of heaven! And they all praised God, singing:  “Glory to God in the highest realms of heaven!  For there is peace and a good hope given to the sons of men.” (Luke 2:8-14 TPT)

Congregational Song: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

When the choir of angels disappeared back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go! Let’s hurry and find this Word that is born in Bethlehem and see for ourselves what the Lord has revealed to us.” So they ran into the village and found their way to Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in a feeding trough.

Upon seeing this miraculous sign, the shepherds recounted what had just happened. Everyone who heard the shepherds’ story was astonished by what they were told. Mary treasured all these things in her heart and often pondered what they meant.

The shepherds returned to their flock, ecstatic over what had happened. They praised God and glorified him for all they had heard and seen for themselves, just like the angel had said. (Luke 2:15-20 TPT)

Christmas is Good News—Good news we should be excited about sharing with others. The disciples shared the story; it’s been shared generation to generation since. It is still being shared. We want others to know this good news. We should “Go Tell it on the Mountain”

Congregational Song “Go Tell it On the Mountain”

Concluding Comments—Communion—Close with Silent Night

Congregational Song “Silent Night! Holy Night!

Benediction

 

Sermon for December 29, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXkl7Q_fSvs

Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9 • Psalm 148 • Hebrews 2:10-18 • Matthew 2:13-22

This week’s theme is God always with us. Isaiah speaks of the steadfast love of the Lord who became our Savior, took on our afflictions, redeemed us and lifted us up. The author of Hebrews reminds us Jesus is the one who sanctifies and became the atonement for our sins. He is our help. The psalmist reminds us this is why we praise the Lord: he has raised up a horn (a symbol of strength) for his people. Matthew reminds us that Jesus is the one who was prophesied—even going to Egypt to fulfill a scripture reminding us that God’s plan was to be with us. The sermon reminds us we are never alone—God is always with us.

Never Alone

Hebrews 2:10-18 NRSV

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Nowhere is this truer than in leadership. Whether in business, the military, or any other organization, good leaders understand that to be respected, they must be willing to share space, tasks, and hardships with those they are leading.

Last week we celebrated Christmas—the birth of Jesus—the beginning of the incarnation—when God became flesh. He remained physical flesh for a bit more than 30 years and then he became a glorified human. We do not know exactly what glorified human means, but it tells us Jesus is still in the state of incarnation. He is still a human. Incarnation was not an event, but a new beginning of God with us.

“God with us” is the name Isaiah used in prophecy that referred to Jesus—Immanuel or Emmanuel. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” God became flesh for us—not just to save us, but to show us he loves us so much he was willing to live just as we do, to suffer with us, to face injustice just as we do, to show us he is fully with us and we are never alone.

Martin Luther said this about Jesus:

In his life Christ is an example showing us how to live; in his death, he is a sacrifice satisfying for our sins; in his resurrection, a conqueror; in his ascension, a king; in his intercession a high priest. ~ Martin Luther

The example we set determines whether or not someone will hear us, and there is no better example than God with us—Jesus. Throughout the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles, we see how the second Person of the Trinity became human in part to understand human suffering and be our comfort.

Before we continue, let me share four more quotes on the importance of example, and I ask you to think of Jesus when you hear these quotes.

“The three most important ways to lead people are: … by example… by example… by example.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” ~ Albert Einstein

“Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” ~ Paul Wellstone

“People may teach what they know, but they reproduce what they are.” ~ John C. Maxwell

Now let’s read our text for today:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:10-18 NRSV)

In this passage we see that Jesus is considered the “pioneer” or leader of our salvation, who was made “perfect” through suffering. This wording doesn’t mean that Jesus lacked moral perfection or that he wasn’t fully divine. Maclaren’s Expositions has this to say:

Christ’s perfecting is not the perfecting of His moral character, but the completion of His equipment for His work of being the Captain of our salvation…, He was not ready for His function of Leader and Originator of our salvation until He had passed through the sufferings of life and the agonies of death.

What an example for us! Jesus willingly went through everything we face to show the depth of his love for us. But not only that, his example takes away any argument that Jesus doesn’t understand, “God can’t know what I’m going through because he is God.” God knows the heart of every person and what is necessary to reach into the depth of our doubts and our fears. Maclaren’s Expositions also makes the point that Jesus “cannot lift us up into a share of His glory unless He stoops to the companionship of our grief.” Because he first loved us—and proved it by his words and his example—we can love him. By Jesus becoming human, he shows us compassion and that he understands how to best comfort a suffering world. He shows us we are never alone.

Let’s consider these ideas from the passage:

  • Jesus’s humanity means he understands the joys and sufferings of human beings. And because Jesus understands, we know he stands in solidarity with us as we rejoice and as we weep. We are never alone in our human experience. We have each other and Jesus, and when we show compassion to each other, we are the hands and feet of Jesus.
  • Jesus breaks the power of death by succumbing to it, taking it to the grave, and allowing God to transform it. At first, the disciples thought Jesus was dead until the final ressurection. They didn’t understand that sometimes winning means giving in and letting God redeem and resurrect. This way of breaking death’s power over us is completely contradictory to our human nature. Our survivor instinct tells us to fight, but if we’re quiet and listening, we will figure out that resting in God and letting God transform a situation might be the best course of action.

Application:

 When you suffer, know that you are never alone. Jesus knows exactly what you’re going through, and he is as close as your next breath. Know that your experience of suffering isn’t wasted because you will be able to comfort someone else as Jesus (and other people) have comforted you.

  • Following Jesus’s example, the best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to be on the same level as those they’re leading. This might mean taking the initiative to serve and work alongside others rather than delegating. It definitely means exercising kindness and compassion, and it means encouraging those you are leading. Francis of Assisi said, “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
  • When faced with a challenging situation, consider accepting it rather than fighting against it, and give God space to transform it. While this certainly doesn’t apply to situations of abuse or life and death, many times we are faced with a reality that is different than what we think we want. We often resist and fight against this reality, either consciously or unconsciously, by complaining or making sarcastic jokes. Think about Jesus’s example of giving in to death in order to break its power and allowing God to transform it. By waiting on God to resolve the situation when we cannot do it ourselves, we make space for transformation to happen, both in us and in our circumstances.

Not only is Jesus the “pioneer” or leader of our salvation, but he is our comfort in the midst of suffering and loss because he has been there. It was God’s intent to lift us up, to bring us into a relationship with the Triune God, but to do that, God’s Son had to become one of us. And by becoming one of us, Jesus also was equipped to break the power of death and our fear of death by giving into it and making space for God to transform it.

 

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life” and the sermon:

  • In v. 12, Jesus calls us “brothers and sisters” and points out that he has been sanctified by God just like us (v. 11). How does this make you feel to know that God’s Son has placed himself on the same plane or level as us?
  • Can you think of a situation where you as a leader “lowered” yourself to the level of those you were leading? If so, tell about that experience and what you learned about being a good leader.
  • Share a time a leader “lowered” him or herself in order to walk with you, to explain something to you, or to experience something with you. What did that teach you about leadership?
  • The sharing of experiences (either good or bad) creates a bond between people. Knowing how someone feels helps him/her feel understood. How can we use this in ministering to people at church and in our daily life? How can this shared experience lead to deeper conversations about God?
  • It says that by going through death, Jesus “free[d] those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (v. 15). Why would Jesus’ experience free us from fear of death? Despite this freedom, we still sometimes struggle with the fear of death. Why do you think that is?

GCI Worship Calendar

Each week, as we gather in our GCI congregations around the world,  most of our pastors are preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary. Using these same passages, and often the same sermon outlines published in Equipper is incredibly unifying. Reading and responding to the same truth about our Triune God is a wonderful way to create connection within our global fellowship.

The scriptures chosen week to week align with each season of the Christian calendar. As the graphic below illustrates, during each season we celebrate and remember the good news of Jesus. In Advent we celebrate, Jesus is coming; in Christmas, we rejoice, Jesus is born; during Epiphany we commemorate, Jesus is ministering; during Lent, we remember, Jesus is saving; in Easter we rejoice, Jesus is risen, and during Ordinary Time we honor, Jesus is building the church. You will notice that the calendar revolves around the life and ministry of Jesus, always keeping him the center of the center. In reliving these messages of good news each year we are continually transformed.

The GCI Worship Calendar is not compulsory however it is an invitation to more intentionally exalt Jesus as the central focus of our worship. The movement toward a defined calendar brings clarity as to how we worship in GCI and keeps us Christ-centered. It is a season to season reminder of who we are and whose we are.

December begins a new worship calendar year. You can download the 2019-2020 GCI Worship Calendar for your reference. If you like to plan ahead, here is a list of the pericopes for this calendar year.