GCI Equipper

Advent: The Dark and the Light, the Origin and the Destiny

Advent, which means “coming” – or from the Latin “to come to” – not only illustrates the biblical teaching of trusting in God and waiting for a fulfillment of his promises, but it also offsets the commercial hype and focus of Christmas that is usually not focused on Jesus.

I believe all of us would agree we need Jesus to come. “Lord, please return and fix this mess we live in.” Not only is the world messed up, but so are we. We hurt people without meaning to. We are easily offended. We are accused of evils and bad intents. We misjudge and are misjudged. We know we need God to make us right and to make the world right. We pray and watch for signs of his coming… and we wait, and wait, and wait in hope for evil to be stopped, for good to come, for love to enter our lives and our world.

A scripture that sums up our angst is in Romans 8, and I quote from The Message because it encapsulates the season of Advent.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. (Romans 8:22-25 The Message)

Welcome to the season of Advent, where waiting is the theme and Jesus is the answer. He has come – born of the virgin Mary; he is here – living in us through the Spirit; he is coming – his glorious return at the end of the age. These are the three “comings” we focus on during Advent as we look back and we look forward, as we see God’s promises from the beginning to the end of the age. Let me give you some suggested themes that tie in with the four common themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Week one theme: “Come, Lord Jesus!” In week one of Advent, we are both watchful and hopeful. We watch as the events in the world are constant reminders that our institutions – even our religious ones – are not permanent. The world is fragile, it cannot fix itself, it is in constant darkness. Humanity has tried every solution we can think of to bring light to the world except to follow Jesus. He is the light that destroys darkness. He is the only answer and the reason we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” During this week we focus on sharing the good news that Jesus will return as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Week two theme: Patient waiting, or “How long, Oh Lord.” During this week we enter the peace that surpasses understanding by reminding ourselves that God is and always has been in control. His plan has always been about Jesus. From the very beginning – before the foundation of the earth – God’s plan was for Jesus to come, to live in us through the Holy Spirit, and to return in all power and glory. Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year, wrote this:

In one sense, the whole of the Old Testament is text for Advent: 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 to Jesus. (pp. 42-43)

We wait, but we wait in hope because we trust in God’s sovereign plan. We have been invited to learn from history and then to join his story, which was his plan from the beginning. Because we know who the solution is, we can be patient as we wait.

Week three theme: “Count it all joy!” During this week we are reminded that God’s purpose is to bring us joy. Yes, we go through trials, we live in a dark time in a darkened world, but God is constant, and his promises are sure. We can follow the example of Zachariah and Elizabeth, who were childless for years; many considered Elizabeth “less than” because she was barren. Even in their old age God gave them the joy-filled message that they would have a child. And not just any child, but a child who would announce the coming of the Messiah. When Mary visited Elizabeth, the baby leaped for joy in her womb and Elizabeth realized she was favored and no longer “less than” in any way. John became the bearer of joyful and good news. He told people to repent and reminded them that God is the forgiver, the merciful one. God wants us to live in his joy. He is faithful to us. He will bring about his promises.

Week four theme: “Blessed are those who believe.” Gabriel announced good news to Mary and her response (paraphrased) was, “I am the Lord’s servant, I am willing and able to do as I am asked.” But before we move forward, we also need to note what Gabriel said to Mary. “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” And “You have found favor with God.” We know from Scripture that finding favor with God isn’t based on what we know or do, it is based on who we know and believe. Mary believed in God and believed God. Like Abraham before her, Mary was blessed because she believed. In her case, the blessing included participating with God in a way no one else has ever participated – she carried the Son of God in her womb and gave birth to the Son of Man. A few months later Elizabeth told Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed,” referring to the promises God had made to both Elizabeth and Mary.

Note that Gabriel repeated the “favored” comment. I would suggest it was because like most of us, Mary had a hard time believing she was favored. We have all fallen for the “I am not…” lies, but God wants us to know the truth and believe the truth. We are loved, we are chosen, we are called out, we are his beloved. Believing this prepares us for the end of Advent and the first coming of Jesus – the Incarnation.

The four weeks of Advent point us to Jesus. He is the one who will return because he is the answer to all things we face. He invites us to live in his peace, even in the midst of darkness and trials. He reminds us that he lives in us through the Spirit and wants to be helpers of our joy. And he encourages us to believe – believe in who he is and in who we are in him. We are blessed when we believe, and one of the greatest blessings is knowing that the Son of God became the Son of Man. Advent points us to the incarnation, the greatest demonstration of God’s love.

Rick Shallenberger
Editor

Advent Symbols and Readings

The advent symbols are full of significance relating to the Christmas season.

Many GCI congregations celebrate Advent by having an Advent wreath on a table in the front of the sanctuary. The wreath encircles three purple (or blue) candles and one rose (or pink) candle. There is a white candle in the middle of the wreath. All are symbolic. Each week a theme is read, followed by a Scripture reading. A new candle is lit each week (along with the previous week’s candle), and a prayer is read.

Advent Wreath

The advent wreath, which is made of evergreens, points to the hope we have in God and signifies eternity and continuous life. The Incarnation of the Son of God did not end 12 days after Christmas, or at the cross. The Son of God became the Son of Man for eternity. The circle of the wreath – which has no beginning or end – symbolizes the everlasting love God has for us and the everlasting life we have in Christ.

Advent Candles

The four candles represent the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus Christ. There are different understandings of what the five candles represent. The most common themes are Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Other themes may be Expectation, Hope, Joy, and Purity, or Promise, Preparation, Peace and Adoration. In GCI Equipper, we focus on the common themes.

Three of the candles are blue or purple, symbolizing royalty – which is fitting as we begin Advent focusing on Jesus returning as King of kings and Lord of Lords. The pink candle symbolizes rejoicing, as we anticipate the celebration of his birth and what it means to us and to the world. The center candle is white and it reminds us that Christ is the light of the world; he is the light shining in the midst of darkness. He is Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Advent Readings

Typically, the lighting of the Advent is done at the beginning of the service and is followed by a Christmas hymn. This is a good time to get members involved in the service. One member can do the reading, light the candle and then pray, or you can involve several each week.

  • One person reads the theme
  • One person reads the Scripture
  • One person lights the candle
  • One person reads the prayer after the candle lighting

Following are some suggested readings for Advent 2021.

November 28 – First Sunday of Advent – Purple Candle

Today we light the first candle of the Advent wreath. This is the candle of HOPE. With Christians around the world, we use this light to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of God’s Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. May we receive God’s light as we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah:

We will read from the prophet Isaiah.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

Let us pray:

Lord, as we look to the birth of Jesus, grant that the light of your love for us will help us become lights in the lives of those around us. Prepare our hearts for the joy and gladness of your coming, for Jesus is our hope. Amen.

December 5 – Second Sunday of Advent – Purple Candle

Last week we lit the candle of HOPE. We will relight that candle, and we will light the candle for the second Sunday in Advent. This is the candle of PEACE. As we prepare for the coming of Jesus, we remember that Jesus is our hope and our peace. We will read from the prophet Isaiah, and the apostle John:

A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40-3-5)

The words of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Let us pray:

Gracious God, grant that we may find peace as we prepare for our Lord’s birth. May divisions in ourselves and in our families be peacefully resolved. May there be peace in our cities and in the countries of our world. Help us see the paths of peace in our lives, and then give us courage to follow them. Lord, let us remember that you only are the giver of lasting peace and that you are always with us. Amen.

December 12 – Third Sunday of Advent – Rose Candle

We relight the first candles of the Advent wreath – the candle of HOPE and the candle of PEACE. Now we light the third candle of Advent. This is the candle of JOY. As the coming of Jesus, our Savior, draws nearer, our joy builds with our anticipation of his birth. From the Book of Isaiah we read the words of our Lord:

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. (Isaiah 65:18)

From the New Testament, the words of Paul to the people of the church at Galatia:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Let us pray:

We joyfully praise you, O Lord, for the fulfillment of your promise of a Savior and what that means in our lives. Thank you for the gift of salvation through the birth of your Son, Jesus. Create us anew as we wait, and help us see your glory as you fill our lives with your living Spirit. Amen.

December 19 – Fourth Sunday of Advent – Purple Candle

Today we see the first three candles of the Advent Wreath will be lit — the candles of HOPE, PEACE and JOY. Now we light the fourth candle of Advent. This is the candle of LOVE. Jesus demonstrated self-giving love in his ministry as the Good Shepherd. Advent is a time for kindness, thinking of others, and sharing with others. It is a time to love as God loved us by giving us his most precious gift. As God is love, let us be love also. In the Book of Deuteronomy we find these words:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19a)

From the Gospel of John we hear these words from our Lord:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Let us pray:

Teach us to love, O Lord. May we always remember to put you first as we follow Christ’s footsteps, that we may know your love and show it in our lives. As we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, also fill our hearts with love for the world, that all may know your love and the one whom you have sent, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

Note: If you will not be having a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service, you can adapt this reading for the end of the service on the 19th.

Christmas Eve (or beginning of service on Christmas Day) – White Candle

As we begin our Christmas celebration, celebrating Jesus’ birth, we light the final candle of the Advent wreath. First, we lit the candle for Hope because Jesus is our hope. Second, we lit the candle for Peace because Jesus is our hope and peace. Third, we lit the candle for Joy because Jesus brings joy and fourth, the candle for Love because Jesus is love. Today we light the center candle. This is the Christ candle. Jesus is born. Jesus has come. Jesus is our salvation.

Here is a reading from Galatians:

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (Galatians 4.4)

Let us pray:

Great God of love and light, we thank you now for the light of that special star over two thousand years ago that guided humble shepherds and learned wise men to the holy babe. Lead us now, by the light of your love, that we also may follow you to new life in him. In celebration of the birth of our King and our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

Building Your Avenue Teams

The Apprenticeship Square and cascading the Healthy Church vision

By: Aron and Joyce Tolentino, Pastors, Metro Manila, Philippines

Restrictions on physical gatherings due to the pandemic have given rise to unique opportunities for virtual training and equipping. The process of cascading and pursuing the vision of Healthy Church has continued for us in the past year, and part of this has been the building up of our congregation’s Avenue teams.

As with any change management exercise, if we are to foster understanding and ownership of the Healthy Church vision in our congregations, it is important to identify and develop people who can champion it. The role of cascading the vision does not belong to the pastor alone. The part to be played by the Avenue teams is crucial – not only in spearheading their respective programs, but in communicating and deepening awareness of the vision among the local church members.

The Apprenticeship Square and Vision Casting

The Apprenticeship Square is a mentoring tool discussed in the book A GIANT Step Forward: Toward an Emerging Culture of Liberation. It discusses the dynamics between the trainee and the trainer, wherein “the four sides of the square describe a clear path for developing leaders who will develop leaders.”[1]

The framework is applicable to building Avenue teams. In this article, we share an example of how it was relevant to us as we cascaded the Healthy Church vision to our congregation.

  1. Unconscious incompetence: I do, you watch

Principle: “When working with someone who doesn’t know that he or she doesn’t know, the best thing to do is model the behavior or action.”[2]

This process took place as people were being gathered and the avenue teams were being formed. At this point, the pastor together with the denominational and national leaders introduced the Healthy Church vision to the teams, diving into the principles and the expressions of heathy leadership and healthy Avenues. Prior to this, the members assembled as part of the core team had either only heard about the vision in sermons and denominational materials or were encountering it for the first time. None had a firm grasp of what it meant. The Avenue teams were recipients of the vision even as they observed how it was being cascaded to them.

Rather than just a download of information, the process was interactive, and questions were encouraged. There was much to unpack, but priority was placed on identifying the most critical components of the vision that the teams needed at the start, and these were communicated over several sessions to give people time to process the information.

  1. Conscious incompetence: I do, you help

Principle: “The mistake many make is turning something over too quickly… Don’t rush turning the corner, but don’t delay either. Know your mentee so you can lead your mentee.”[3]

As the Avenue teams were being formed, they knew that part of their role would be to grasp and then communicate the concepts of Faith, Hope and Love to the congregation.

In our case, some team members were quicker to grasp the concepts while others took more time to absorb them. Some of them were used to and skilled at public speaking, while others lacked experience or confidence.

At this point in the Apprenticeship Square, the key is to enable participation. One of the ways we did this was to allocate portions of our equipping sessions for team members to rotate in presenting portions of the vision specific to their avenues. The pastor set up these sessions, provided materials and coaching to the presenters, and helped refine key messages that should be highlighted when communicating the vision to the local church. This allowed members of the avenue teams to practice with the core group as their audience, while the pastor led, enabled, and mentored them with the goal of setting them up for the wider presentation.

  1. Conscious competence: You do, I help

Principle: “You are lending support, you are helping fill in the gaps; you step in when it is needed, but you are empowering others to lead.”[4]

After months of learning and practicing together, we formally launched the Healthy Church vision to the congregation, utilizing our midweek online gatherings. During these sessions, rather than only having the pastor present, representatives from each Avenue team discussed what the Faith, Hope, and Love Avenues meant, how each translated to our local context, and how they contributed to realizing the Healthy Church vision.

It was a good experience for the Avenue teams as it helped them internalize and own the vision and feel a sense of accomplishment following their participation. Another benefit of bringing the teams along to the forefront of vision sharing was that it created a strong symbol to the congregation that this was not just the initiative of the pastor, but something shared and advocated by a cross-section of the local church.

  1. Unconscious competence: You do, I watch

Principle: “This is when you stand in the back of the room and watch them lead… allow them to insert their own personality and giftedness in their leadership.”[5]

It has been several months since the Healthy Church launch, but the cascading of the vision and reinforcement to the congregation continues. The teams have started planning and implementing various activities under their respective avenues. These have ranged from virtual celebrations of special events under Hope, discipleship pathway and roll-out of the On Being a Neighbor series under Faith, and a fundraising drive and acts of service campaign for our target community under Love. While there is pastoral oversight, it is generally light touch, with the level of involvement varying depending on each avenue team’s need for support. As our GCI president would say, “Eyes on, hands off.”

For the kick-off and conclusion of such activities, it has been the avenue teams presenting these to the congregation. These have involved the reiteration of the Faith, Hope and Love Avenue concepts and how the activities link back to the overall vision of Healthy Church. Looking ahead, we have updates planned for the congregation, which would promote celebration of what God has done in the past year and excitement about the upcoming events. Recognizing that vision leaks, these updates would also be an opportunity to refresh people on Healthy Church. The design is again for the Avenue teams to lead the presentations.

Conclusion

Applying the apprenticeship square to building our Avenue teams has helped promote a “high support, high challenge” environment in our local church. As a result of using the tool towards cascading Healthy Church, more people caught the vision, more had a place at the table, and more were enabled to communicate this more broadly to the congregation. This built unity in the team – we were on the same page, had the same understanding of where we were headed, and therefore could push in that direction together.

The purpose of the Apprenticeship Square as a tool is to equip people, and we do so to enable the GCI culture of team-based, pastor led. Not only is this administrative in nature, but a reflection of the deeper spiritual call to the ministry of all believers. The more people are equipped, the better we become at participating in Jesus’ ministry. It is about setting up people for what God can do in them and through them.

[1] Greg Williams, Rick Shallenberger and Tom Nebel, A GIANT Step Forward: Toward an Emerging Culture of Liberation (Charlotte, NC: Grace Communion International, 2019), 71.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 72.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Introduction to Our Connect Group

A personal story about the benefit of being in a small group.

By David Howe, Pastor, Fort Wayne, IN

A light snow was just beginning to fall as winter was moving into our state of Indiana. It was 6:30 pm and I pulled into the driveway of a friend. There were several other cars already there. This was our first time getting together to start our Connect group. Several members volunteered to host the group at their homes in rotation for our new Connect group. And most were inviting friends to join us.

When I entered the house, my nose immediately smelled the lasagna that was being prepared for our dinner. We all brought a side dish to round out the meal. We had decided to start each meeting with a meal together, which enabled us to catch up with each other in what was going on in our lives. We thought sharing a meal would make it a more relaxing environment and give a chance for friendships to grow and develop. This proved to be a good decision. As the group progressed, the mealtime ended up being not only a wonderful chance for all of us to know each other better, but as our relationships grew, we found ourselves praying for each other with more intensity. We became more than friends; we became a spiritual family.

After enjoying the lasagna and other delectables, we went into the living room and started talking. It didn’t take long for us to start sharing questions we had, both about our lives and about what God’s word had to say. It was a wonderful experience. We opened ourselves up as trust was formed. We were able to understand that each of us was coming from a different journey, which influenced how we understood the Bible. We also learned that as we walk this journey with God our understanding of the Bible changed as well.

When we would address a scripture, we would go around the room and everyone was invited to share how that scripture impacted them. It was interesting to learn how other people would see a scripture based on their journey. It made the Bible come alive as we saw that God was using the same words to give each person a unique message tailored for them. All of us found God so much more amazing as we saw different views come to light. From the very beginning we had a fresh look at Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” We quickly realized that no matter how long or brief our walk with Christ was, we could still add something to the conversation.

As the months passed, we found each meeting of the Connect Group a highlight as we looked forward to getting together to share in each other’s life. We would lift each other up and encourage each other on a regular basis. It has become an eye-opening experience learning how to share life with others and being open to sharing what you see versus what others see. In addition, you begin to realize those people who are different from you, are really not all that different in Christ.

It’s an experience I pray more and more of the members will participate in. It has helped me in my spiritual walk, and I know it will be a benefit to others. I continue to encourage all to be part of a healthy Connect Group.

More Measurables for a Healthy Church?

Relationships, teachability and investment are three more measurables for a healthy church.

By Danny Zachariah, Regional Director, India-subcontinent and church pastor Hyderabad, India

Occasionally on a morning walk, I cross paths with a neighbour, a retired Air Force officer. Knowing that I pastor a church, he never forgets to ask me, “Is your church growing?” I know that his question is intending to ask if it is growing numerically, but I invariably respond, “Yes sir, it is, spiritually!” For most, growth in numbers is the only defining measurable for a healthy church. The reason for this is because the real metrics for a healthy church are hard to measure.

Addressing this dilemma, Mike Bonem states, “The things that matter the most—transformed lives, ministry effectiveness, spiritual growth—are the hardest to measure. So we settle for metrics that are easier to obtain but much less meaningful.” He further opines that wise church leaders must pay attention to meaningful metrics and “prune” the less relevant ones to strengthen the church. “They know that even if the numbers don’t meet their expectations, God can still be at work in powerful ways” (Measuring What Matters, Christianity Today). [i]

Undoubtedly, numerical growth and sizable offerings have their place in the long-term viability of a church. Biblically, though, there is more to a church that is healthy than just pews filled and the size of its balance sheet. President Greg Williams, in a recent update[ii], listed a few vital signs for a church. The three measurables that he listed were a church that makes disciples to grow the community of the church, the church that is doing good to all and a church that serves the needy. Let us look at three more measurables that align with Scripture.

Loving relationships that give rise to authentic communion within the congregation

A healthy church is one that nurtures loving relationships that results in, not only a growing community, but a loving one. Wanting his disciples to recognize the fullness of his love, Jesus gives them a tall order by saying:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

Jesus seems to indicate that the perfect love that he has for them should reach its fullness by them sharing it with one another. A church that is recognized by others as being a loving community manifesting it in dynamic harmony—remaining united within all its diversity and experiencing peace that rises above earthly strife—would emphatically be a hallmark to health. It would be unfortunate if someone said of us, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” as was famously commented by Mahatma Gandhi.

A teachable spirit that remains open to change

A healthy Christian is a growing Christian. Growing Christians are ultimately those who contribute to a healthy church. A growing Christian is one who is moving into maturity through intentional spiritual formation. That requires the courage to change when it is necessary. Healthy churches are those that are providing avenues for every member to experience such transformation. Peter recognized the importance of this discipline within the church.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

Investing in genuine worship that impacts worshippers.

Healthy churches are regularly providing avenues for genuine, corporate worship. Worship isn’t something Christians do to get a weekly “fix.” It is to celebrate our precious Savior. Worship should be transformative, not just to experience a temporary “high.” The Psalmist reminds us that we tend to become like the one or things we ascribe worshipful trust (Psalm 115:4-8). Then, it should be all the more a reason for us to participate in true worship so that we may conform to the image of Jesus Christ. Richard Tan states:

The more we comprehend the beauty of God’s nature in worship, the more worship will transform us into the likeness of His divine nature. This transformation not only changes us, but this change will positively impact the way we relate and interact with those around us. In other words, God is not only blessed by our worship, but others are blessed because we worship God.[iii]

May every congregation in our denomination consider these measurables and strive to bring glory to our loving triune God.

[i] https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2012/spring/measuringmatters.html
[ii] GCI Update, Sep 20, 2021
[iii] “The Impact of True Worship,” Richard Tan, https://www.firstlightchurch.com.au/the-impact-of-true-worship/

 

The Grace of Giving

One of the measurables of a healthy church is when congregations and members practice what Paul called “the grace of giving.”

By Bob Regazzoli, Pastor, Australia

Let’s look at a biblical indicator – an example from the early church of a group of congregations who demonstrated what healthy churches believe and practice. During the time of the apostle Paul, the Christians in Judea were suffering the effects of severe famine, and Paul, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, was collecting donations (love offerings) from the various Gentile churches he was visiting to take back to Judea to assist their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. The immediate need was emergency support, but this would also be a powerful witness of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gentile churches, reflecting that Jew and Gentile were truly one family in Christ.

Unfortunately, the members in Corinth, who had previously expressed their willingness to help, were not coming through with their offerings, prompting Paul to discuss the critical subject “The Grace of Giving” in his second letter to them. (2 Corinthians 8 & 9)

In these chapters, Paul addresses the motivation for Christian giving. In order to stir the Corinthians to action, Paul cites the example of the generous giving of the churches in Macedonia.

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

We can take note of the following through these verses:

  • Giving is a gift of God, an expression of His grace. The motivation for Christian giving is our response to God’s grace to us. We are encouraged to excel in this attribute of grace.
  • These Macedonian churches were facing severe trials themselves, and extreme poverty. They were not rich in material goods, but they were still more than willing to give to help their brothers and sisters in the faith.
  • The joy they experienced in Jesus motivated them to this rich generosity. The joy of Christ leads us to be generous in many ways. The love of Christ leads us to want others to experience what God has blessed us with, and to share Jesus and his life with others.
  • They gave as they were able, even beyond their perceived ability. Without any prompting, they urgently pleaded with Paul and his party for this privilege of sharing (Gr. koinonia) when they became aware of other people’s needs. They understood that they were all God’s family on earth, and didn’t allow ethnic, cultural or social differences to hinder their giving or dictate their level of generosity.

What brought about this incredible act of big-heartedness?

They gave themselves first to the Lord (v. 5). They had wholeheartedly committed themselves to Jesus, and as we read further in the chapter, they understood the greatest act of generosity had been shown through the Incarnation of Jesus, who emptied himself of all his divine privileges, coming to this earth to give himself for all humanity. He became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich.

The Macedonians then gave themselves to the teaching and example of the leadership, and to the fellowship of the saints. They were committed to the body of Christ, expressing his love not only within their own congregations but to others in need, and in this case, to their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Paul had earlier taught the Galatian churches to take advantage of every opportunity to be a blessing to others. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). The Macedonian churches were showing how this should be done.

N.T. Wright, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, gives us this valuable insight:

What Paul is urging them to do is to think of themselves, as it were, this way round, and to discover that, if they realise they are characters in the great drama which is going forwards, then the generosity he is urging will come naturally. In the normal and healthy Christian life, everything proceeds from God’s generosity, and everything returns to God in thanksgiving. Grace, generosity and gratitude: these are not optional extras of Christian living, but are the very heart of it all. (Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, p. 103)

This IS the Christian life: grace, generosity, and gratitude, as emphasized in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9. We are the recipients of God’s grace in all his generosity. God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” Paul reminded the Ephesians. Our response is deep gratitude. As we live in communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we share in the divine nature and allow his Spirit to flow forth from us to share his grace gifts with others.

Healthy churches reflect the faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ expressed through their participants, not by their balance sheets, membership numbers and physical assets. Generosity is one vital attribute of the Spirit and nature of God.

In their giving, the Macedonian churches, despite their poverty, demonstrated that they were truly healthy churches as they allowed God’s grace to flow through them to be a blessing to others. Through their generosity, going above and beyond, they expressed the love of Christ for others in practical ways, their faith that God’s generosity would far exceed theirs and provide for all their needs, and ultimately their trust and hope in Jesus Christ.

Church Hack: Power of the “And”

The world seems to be changing faster than humanity has historically experienced. In the past year or so the way we experience and participate in church has shifted in monumental ways. Our mission, to share the love of Christ, remains the same, but our methods must evolve. Check out this month’s Church Hack that emphasizes the power of the “and,” as well as the shifts that are occurring in the ways upcoming generations engage with church. #gcichurchhacks

 

 

Message for December 24 or 25 – Christmas Drama

Written by Rick Shallenberger

The format is “Reader’s Theater.” You are all telling different views of the same story. In this particular Reader’s Theater format, you aren’t in conversation with each other, but you will be feeding off each other’s comments – as if the words another says said just triggered your own thought, or just fit in perfectly with your next thought. You do not have to memorize your lines, but you should look over them several times so you can read with feeling and emotion.

You should start with Christmas songs and a Scripture reading and then insert Scripture readings and songs in between the scenes. A list of suggested songs and Scripture readings will be at the end.

At the opening, all three readers will be seated behind music stands, and the narrator will be behind the lectern. As the narrator introduces each reader, he/she will stand and turn on the music stand light.

 Most statements interrupt each other. It would be good to practice these transitions ahead of time. I’d suggest sitting and reading through it together and then having rehearsal before the Christmas Event.

 The story is told in three parts or scenes, and it is suggested to have congregational Christmas hymns/songs between the scenes. We include some suggestions.

 Characters include a narrator and up to nine readers. (You can have the same readers read in more than one scene if you choose.)

 Scene one takes place in heaven, where three angels are talking to an unknown person (the audience) sharing their reaction to being told the Son of God is going to become human.

Scene two takes place just after Jesus’ birth. The three characters, Simeon, Anna and Mary, the mother of Jesus, all speculate on what this birth will ultimately mean to humanity.

Scene three is in modern times: Three Christians speculate about if there is something more behind Jesus becoming flesh than just the Savior coming to earth. (Note: Though I have given the three people in this final scene gender identity, it was only to make the writing easier. You can easily change the gender, and then change a few words for the narrator.)

 Scene One: Angels Are Included in the Plan

Narrator: Imagine what it was like just before the Son of God became flesh. We can only speculate how exciting things were in heaven. Today, we listen in as three angels, who have just returned from a meeting with the archangel Gabriel, share their take on the Incarnation. Let’s listen to these three angels: Katallage, Apokalupsis, and Koinonia.

Katallage: My name is Katallage (ka-ta-la-gay)

Apokalupsis: My name is Apokalupsis (apoka-loopsis)

Koinonia: My name is Koinonia (Koi- no-nee-a)

All three (in unison): And I want to tell you an amazing story.

Katallage: I’d been told for years that something was going to happen that would literally change everything. I’d heard that before and I’d seen some amazing things in my life, but when I was summoned today to see Gabriel, the energy in the meeting was contagious. I’d never seen Gabriel so bright, so majestic, so bursting with joy and excitement…

Apokalupsis: …joy and excitement. He was pacing back and forth – OK, you could say flying back and forth, and he had this glow in his eyes I’d never seen before. I’ve seen him excited before, but the look in his eyes just stopped me in my tracks. I knew something big was about to happen. Gabriel was smiling…

Koinonia: … He was smiling ear to ear as he told me that I had been invited to be part of the most amazing feat that God had ever planned. This event was planned before anything else had been created, he said. I figured I knew what it was, but I asked anyway. He paused, threw out his arms to accentuate the point and said,

All three: The Incarnation…

Katallage: The Son of God was giving up his robe of light and was planning to enter his creation… He was putting on skin and going…

Apokalupsis: … going to become at one with his creation. The one we worshipped as God, the Creator, the Son of God, was going to become the Son of Man. He was going to become. …

Koinonia: …to become human. I knew this day was coming; we all did. We’d heard about this plan for a long time. We looked forward to this time like no other time in our existence, We know the most important event for mankind was the day the Son of God would …

Katallage: …would roar on the scene as a king on a white horse and rule the world. The world needed a good king, a righteous king, a king who knew the best way to defeat the enemies of darkness. We knew that one day all would know him…

Apokalupsis: …know him as King of kings and Lord of lords. I got excited as I looked at Gabriel and the others and said, So it’s true. The Son is going to be King? Gabriel laughed and said, “All in due time, but first he’s going to become a baby.

All three: A baby?

Katallage: A baby, Gabriel said. We knew the plan was for the Word, the Son of God to become flesh and dwell among humans and that many would see his glory. But a baby? “Why a baby?” I asked. Then Gabriel said something I’ll never forget. He said…

Apokalupsis: He said, “He’s becoming a baby so he can identify with all of humanity and feel their pain, live their life and heal all their sinfulness. You’ve been trained to work right alongside him.”

Koinonia: I’ve been trained to work right alongside him, Gabriel said. And that’s when I got excited. All the training I’d been through was going to play out in this amazing plan of God’s. We knew the name of the plan, it was called Incarnation.

Katallage: …Incarnation. But we also knew that most people would just refer to it as Christmas. Gabriel told me that while many people would understand the concept of Jesus being God’s gift to the world, others might just focus on gifts, and gift giving. Still, many songs would be written about Jesus to celebrate the season…

Apokalupsis: … celebrate the season. They would use lights to remind everyone that Jesus was the light of the world. Many would use an evergreen tree to remind people that Jesus is alive year-round. Many would be extra nice to each other during the season and shout out greetings to one another. Many would become more generous…

Koinonia: …generous during the season as they focused on the plight of others. And all this was good, Gabriel said, but they would miss out on one of the main reasons the Son of God wanted to become part of his creation. He wanted to show them who the Father is…

Katallage:…who the Father is. He wants them to know and believe that God is not and never was mad at them. He’s their Father who loves them. Gabriel said the Son wants them to see the Father as a Papa/Father, a wonderful, joy-filled, affectionate Father who loves them more than they could ever know. The Son wants to show them that they were not separated from this Father/God as they believed…

Apokalupsis: They believed they were separated from the Father because of their sins, Gabriel said, and the Son wants to show them just because God hates sin does not mean he hates the sinner. He could never hate his children. He hates sin because he sees what sin does to his children. He sees the pain and anguish sin causes. The Son wants to show them the Father’s love by not only living with them, but by becoming one of them.

Koinonia: …becoming one of them, Gabriel said, the Father will be showing through the Son that one of his greatest desires is to restore the relationship he had with them from the beginning. When he created them in his image, he walked with them and talked with them in the garden. They were in relationship – a relationship that was destroyed through sin and the lies the enemy told them about God. The Son wants to restore this relationship and Gabriel said my training was going to help make this happen.

Katallage: My training was going to help make this happen. I’ve been trained to help people see the truth…,

Apokalupsis: …and to help others see God as a God of love and forgiveness.

Koinonia: I’ve been trained to bring people together and help them see they are all on the same side. To help them work together and have common goals and plans.

Apokalupsis: My name is Apokalupsis – which means revelation – The Father was revealed by the Son.

Katallage: My name is Katallage – which means reconciliation – all will be reconciled back to good relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit.

Koinonia: My name is Koinonia – which means communion – all are included in the Son who is in the Father, by the indwelling love and power of the Spirit.

Narrator: Revelation, Reconciliation, Communion – interesting names for these angels. Could there be more to the story of Christmas than meets the eye? Could Christmas actually be about more than Christ becoming a baby in a manger? Could Christmas also be about revelation? Could it be about reconciliation? Could it be about communion? These are good questions we should ponder. Perhaps the next scene will shed some light. We’ll be back in just a moment when we will hear from three people who were awaiting the Messiah in very special ways.

For now I turn it over to the worship leader.

[Insert a song and perhaps a Scripture reading.]

 

Scene Two: The Wonder of it All

Narrator: Every good Jew knew some prophecies about the Messiah. These prophecies were taught in the synagogues and passed down from generation to generation. There were songs about Emmanuel – God with us. Today we will hear from three people who were waiting for the Messiah in special ways. One had been promised he would see the Messiah before he died; another spent her days and nights at the temple worshipping God. The third is a young lady who is a virgin, yet who has just given birth to a baby who, she was told, is the Son of God. Let’s listen to Simeon, the prophetess Anna, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

All Three: I can’t help but wonder… (pause as if contemplating a deep thought)

Anna: I can’t help but wonder if God is showing me something of himself in this little baby boy.

Simeon: I can’t help but wonder how this baby is going to take away Israel’s pain and suffering.

Mary: I can’t help but wonder why the Son of God let himself become human and be just like one of us.

Anna: I’ve always been one to seek God through prayer. I’ve been praying for the Messiah to come for many years.

Simeon: For many years I’ve been praying that God would restore glory to his people Israel. We turned our back on God, and for a long time I feared he’d turned his back on us. But God was always good to me, and I felt the presence of his Spirit in me. I can’t explain it, but I know God is with me.

Mary: The Son of God was in me – it’s hard to put my mind around this. He was in me and because he is my son, I am also part of him. What does this mean? How can the Messiah be both human and God? It’s more than my poor mind can grasp and I’m asking God to shed some light on what it all means. Surely, God is teaching me…

Anna: God is teaching me more and more about him. I spend all my time at the temple. I fast often, I pray many times a day in my effort to really know God. Over the years he has spoken to me and has revealed things to me. I became known as a prophetess as God revealed more and more things to me…

Simeon: As God revealed more and more things to me, I pleaded with him to let me see God glorified by his nation once more. I wanted the world to know God was with us. I felt it was going to happen soon. Then one day the Spirit spoke to me…

Mary: The Sprit spoke to me and affirmed that God was teaching me. The Spirit said I was part of a great spiritual truth. What could these things mean?

Anna: “What could these things mean?” God told me that Jesus would be called the Son of Man as well as the Son of God. “When you see Jesus,” God said, “you will see my Son. When you see my Son, you will see the Anointed One, you will see the Messiah.”

Simeon: “You will see the Messiah,” the Spirit said to me. “Before you leave this earth, you will see the One who will restore Israel. You will see the One who is Anointed to save the world. You will see the One who brings forgiveness. You will see the one who is just and true and full of mercy. You will see the one who restores all things. You will see the glory of the Father.”

Mary: “You will see the glory of the Father” was what the Spirit said to me. So what is this glory, I wondered? I can’t help but wonder…

Anna: I can’t help but wonder at these words. Emmanuel, Anointed One, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God. What does this all mean? I can’t help but wonder…

Simeon: I can’t help but wonder about this restoration, this forgiveness, this saving, this justice, truth and mercy, this glory of God. I can’t help but wonder….

All Three: I wonder… (Again, pause as if in deep thought)

Anna: I wonder… This baby Jesus is also called Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us,” hmmm, so he is not just the Messiah coming to save, but he is God coming to live with us. And if he is called the Son of God, then he must be the Son of the Father. I’ve not really thought of God as a Father. I’ve thought of him as the Creator, the Omnipotent one, the Righteous One, the Holy One, Jehovah – but a Father? I wonder…

Simeon: I wonder… The Spirit told me Jesus was bringing forgiveness and mercy. That he is restoring us back to God, and that the restoration goes far beyond Israel? I wonder….

Mary: I wonder… There is a bond between Jesus and me. I am his mother, and he is my child. And because he is the Son of God, could there also be a bond between me and God that I never dreamed possible? I can’t help but wonder….

Anna: I wonder… If Jesus is one of us – and he is revealing that God is his Father, that means God is also my Father – which is relationship. Could it be that this baby is revealing what it means to be in relationship with God? Is this what it means to really be human? Is Jesus here to reveal, to restore and to reconcile?

Simeon: Jesus is restoring and reconciling, the Spirit told me. He is here to restore us to God. I wonder…

Mary: I wonder… It seems clear Jesus is showing us that God wants to be closer to us. Not only has he become one with us, but he wants to be in relationship with us. As I love him, he also loves me. It’s amazing, and it makes me wonder…

All three: I wonder….

Narrator: A lot to wonder about. We first met three angels whose names were revelation, reconciliation and communion. Now we’ve heard from three who were integral parts of the story of Jesus’ birth, and they talked about revelation, reconciliation, and communion. We’re going to sing a hymn and then come back and hear from three more people. The next scene takes place in the present. For now, let’s turn it over to our worship team.

[Insert a song and perhaps a Scripture reading.]

 

Scene Three: The Best Christmas Ever…

Narrator: The Christmas season means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it’s a time when extended family gets together to share meals, music and gifts. For others, it’s a very lonely time of the year. Many realize Christmas is about Jesus, but not all make him part of the celebration. Part of the reason is that people seem to have missed out on what the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is all about. Some believe Jesus came to forgive us and that’s it. Others believe Jesus came to judge the world. During this final scene, we will hear from three people who are giving thought to what Christmas is all about. We will join them as they come to understand the true meaning of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

Carla is a new Christian who is excited about Christ.

Rochelle was a Christian through college but slid backwards for a number of years and then returned – fearful of the reception she was going to receive.

Charles has been a Christian for a long time and recently started to see what his personal journey with Jesus is all about.

All three: It’s the best Christmas ever…

Carla: My best friend and I have known each other since we were kids. I always knew she went to church, but I never thought about it much. She never pushed her beliefs on me, and she didn’t judge me for not going to church. I was always surprised she didn’t treat me as if I was going to hell.

Rochelle: I was going to hell; I just knew it. I grew up going to church. I went to Sunday school and learned all my lessons. I was even baptized when I was a kid. It was the thing to do, and I believed it was important. I started questioning things in high school. Church just wasn’t fun anymore and it seemed to just be about things I was not supposed to do. I could tell you everything my church was against, but I would have a hard time telling you what it was for. So I stopped going.

Charles: I stopped going to church because I felt I had to, and I started going to church because I wanted to. I’m not sure when my thinking changed, but one day it hit me that I was no longer going to church just because of the worship, or because I liked the preaching, or because of the mission we were doing. Those things were important, but church was really about relationships. The relationships my friends and I had…

Carla: My friend and I had a relationship that made me start to ask her questions about her beliefs. Even though we had been friends for years, I’d never really asked her about her beliefs. She had invited me to her church from time to time, but she never pushed it and that always meant something to me. All she said was that God loved me just as I was.

Rochelle: I wished God would love me just as I was, but I knew that wasn’t possible – or at least I believed it wasn’t possible. There were so many rules and so many things that would make God mad at me that I just stopped trying. For a while I went to church on Christmas and Easter because that made my family happy; but I felt like a hypocrite. I was afraid of God, but after a time, I even stopped going at Christmas and Easter. I wanted to be with people who cared about me, not with people who were judging me. I wanted to be where I could love and be loved, not at church.

Charles: Church is a place where you can love and be loved. One day I realized God loved the people I was worshipping with. Even though they were sinners like me, they were God’s beloved children, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I started to feel that somehow we were all connected. I started to see that God’s plan was about relationships.

Carla: God’s plan was about relationships, not rules, my friend told me. As she talked about God, she introduced me to Jesus. I was amazed at the story of Jesus being God and coming to this earth to live as a human. My friend told me Jesus became one of us because God loves us. My friend had meaning in her life from being in a relationship with Jesus. I was impressed. I wanted this; I wanted my life to have meaning.

Rochelle: I wanted my life to have meaning and so I tried all kinds of different things. I worked hard in school to be the best I could be. I started climbing the corporate ladder. I even tried some drugs and alcohol, but that didn’t do anything for me. One day as I shared with a friend that I wanted more out of life, she told me about her relationship with Jesus and how amazing it was to be close to God. The way she talked about church made it sound good – not at all like I had experienced. I told her I knew I was going to hell because I had rejected God. She hugged me and told me that I might have rejected God, but he never rejected me. She asked me to come to church with her. She said God only wanted to share his love and life with me.

Charles: Sharing God’s love and life with others is what God’s plan is all about. I started to see that God’s number-one focus is on relationships. Then while studying one day, I started to see what Jesus meant when he said he and the Father were one, and then he prayed that we would be one just as he was one with the Father. I was starting to get the idea of oneness, family, unity, community. I started to ask God to help me see more. I wanted to really know Jesus.

Carla: I wanted to really know this Jesus my friend talked about. I started going to church with my friend and it was amazing. Everyone was so nice. They taught that God loved all people and he was the Father to all people. Going to church was, well, amazing…

Rochelle: Going to church was amazing. The people made me feel so welcome. They didn’t treat me as a sinner who had gone astray – they treated me as if I was important to them and to God. The pastor told me, “God has always loved you. He’s beside himself with joy that you want to be with him again.” I felt so good when I went home that day. I prayed for the first time in years. It wasn’t much; it was just, “God, thank you…”

Charles: God, thank you for helping me see the amazing work Jesus is doing in me and in everyone. This is the best Christmas ever…

Carla: It’s the best Christmas ever… God is showing me more and more about who he is, what his plan is for me and how much he loves me. He’s helped me look at other people differently by showing me how much he loves them. This is the best Christmas ever…

Rochelle: This is the best Christmas ever. I’ve been back at church for a few months now and I’ve shared my story with several people. No one has judged me; they’ve all just praised God that I’ve returned. It’s amazing. I really thought God was mad at me; but he was never mad. All the time I was gone, God was with me, working things out so that one day I would see him more clearly and want to walk with him again. I’ve learned so much and I’m telling you, this Christmas, I’m really getting what it’s all about.

All Three: Christmas is about Jesus, and it’s about me.

Carla: God used my friend to help me see who Jesus really is. Christmas is much, much more than the baby in the manger…

Rochelle: The baby in the manger is only part of the Christmas story. Jesus came to share the Father’s love with us and to teach us that even when we mess up – and we do mess up a lot – that God doesn’t stop loving us or reaching out to us. He wants us to love others and to be loved. He wants us to share in the joy of bringing good news to other people.

Charles: Bringing good news to other people is telling them Christmas is about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit being in unity with humans. It’s about us becoming one with God and with each other. Christmas is…

Carla: Christmas is about revelation, and so much more…

Rochelle: Christmas is about reconciliation, and so much more…

Charles: Christmas is about communion, and so much more.

All three: Christmas is about Jesus, and Christmas is about me.

Narrator: So there you have it. The word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is about revelation: It’s about Jesus revealing that God is our Father and that we belong to him. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is also about reconciliation. Jesus was reconciling God to man and man to God. And the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is about communion. Jesus taught us that just as he is one with us and one with the Father, so in him, we are also one with the Father.

Our hope is that knowing what Christmas is about – this Christmas will be for you…the best Christmas ever…

[End with a Scripture reading and a worship song.]

Suggested Scriptures and songs

  • Isaiah 7:14
  • Luke 1:26-33
  • Matthew 1:18-25
  • Isaiah 9:6-7
  • Luke 2:8-12
  • Luke 2:13-14
  • John 3:16-17
  • Here I Am to Worship
  • Joyful, Joyful We Adore You
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful
  • Go, Tell it on the Mountain
  • Joy to the World
  • O Holy Night
  • Silent Night

Who Do You Say That They Are?

We should not label children (or anyone) based on a snapshot of their life. Rather, we should remind them of their true identity in Christ.

For two years, I served as the director of the Boston ArtScience Prize, a project-based innovation program for high school students that helped them turn their ideas into reality. We served hundreds of young people from seemingly every walk of life at Cloud Place, a modern artist studio/scientist laboratory stocked with the latest creative tools and equipment. In the ten-year history of Cloud Place and the ArtScience Prize, there was never a physical fight. Those who care for high school students understand the significance of that statement. When talking with a group of educators and youth workers, I was asked how we were able to achieve such a feat. I gave them two reasons: we repeatedly tell every young person 1) their ideas were important and could change the world and 2) Cloud Place was built to be a place worthy of their ideas, and the resources there were for them. In other words, we continually reminded them of their value and identity and backed up our words with tangible action. As a result, no matter what others told them, when our students entered Cloud Place, they did so as creators and not destroyers.

Naming something is a powerful act. As human beings, we often take the shape of the names given to us. Whether or not those names are true, we are transformed by the words spoken over us. This is how God designed us, and human beings have unfortunately done much harm to each other by speaking false names. However, the Creator made us this way so that he could give each of us a name — so he could be the source of our identity, purpose, and value. One of the best examples of this is when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:15-18)

Peter’s confession of who Jesus is served as the foundation for his identification. Knowing who Jesus is reveals who we are. At the time, Peter, which means “rock,” was anything but solid. Not long after his naming, Peter denied Christ three times and went back to the life he lived before encountering Jesus. Christ’s naming of Peter was not based on an immediate assessment of the man’s character but in the reality of who Simon would become in Christ. Peter had to grow into his name, but it did not stop Jesus from speaking the truth of his identity. Simon was transformed the moment Jesus called him Peter, and he was used by God to help others see their true identity in Christ. In his first letter Peter tells his audience (and us):

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Naming something is a powerful act. What names do you speak over the young people in your life? Who do you say they are? Do you tell them about their identity and value in Jesus? Most adults in the lives of children and youth recognize the importance of communicating care. Every child we serve should know they are loved and that they belong. However, as Christ-followers, we should not stop there. We should be willing to participate in the work of Jesus to give our young people a name. As we pray about them, God will tell us who they are to him. When he does, we should speak those things to our young people. It does not matter if they do not look like that name right now. We should not label children (or anyone) based on a snapshot of their life. Instead, we should follow the lead of the God who can see the beginning and the end. Like Simon, they may need to grow into their name, but that process could not start until he learned that he was, in fact, Peter.

As we speak the names of our children and youth, they will not be the only ones transformed. We, too, will be transformed. We will see them with God’s eyes and love them with God’s heart. We will be further revealed as we try to love them like Jesus. May God richly bless you as you help your young people become who God made them to be.

Dishon Mills, Generations Ministries, US.

Gospel Reverb – Blessed Are You! w/ Mako Nagasawa

Blessed Are You! w/ Mako Nagasawa

Video unavailable (video not checked).

 

 

 

 

 

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and Mako Nagasawa, Founder and Executive Director of the Anastasis Center unpack these lectionary passages:

December 5 – Advent 2
Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV) “The Voice Crying Out”
(9:54)

December 12 – Advent 3
Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV) “What Should We Do?”
(21:49)

December 19 – Advent 4
Luke 1:39-45 “Blessed Are You!”
(37:57)

December 26 – Christmas 1
Luke 2:41-52 “Lost and Found”
(52:29)

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcast.

The Role of the Church Life Coordinator w/ Marty Davey

The Role of the Church Life Coordinator w/ Marty Davey

In this episode, Anthony Mullins, interviews Marty Davey. Marty pastors our GCI Congregation in Jacksonville, Florida, and Woodbine, Georgia. Together they discuss the role of the Church Life Coordinator in the Faith Avenue.

“Whatever type of activity you’re doing, do you see people being happy? Are they enjoying themselves? We live in a world that’s full of struggles, with many  ups and downs, and live is going to have a lot of pain. Even for Christians, so anything we can do to lift people up
and bring people enjoyment is so good.
It is so good for mental health, so good for spiritual health, and is so good for the bonding love and unity that we need in the church – which also results in people more likely to stay in the church.”
–Pastor Marty Davey

 

Main Points:

  • What in the world is a Church Life Coordinator and how does it support the Faith Avenue? (8:13)
  • How does a Church Life Coordinator compliment the GCI vision of Healthy Church? (11:16)
  • Give us a sketch of who would be an ideal candidate for a Cross Generational Care Coordinator in a local church setting? (15:23)
  • In your mind’s eye, what does it look like when the Church Life Coordinator ministry is functioning in a healthy way? (20:30)
  • What are some best practices that facilitate the healthy functioning of a congregation’s church life? (30:35)

 

Resources:

  • Focused on Hope videos – The Workshops and Main Sessions from the Virtual Celebration are available, along with discussion questions so that you can contextualize with your team.
  • The Playful God – An Equipper article about games, humor, dance, singing, and unadulterated silliness are basic human needs.
  • Stages of Faith Discipleship –  A tool for understanding common stages of faith development experienced by followers of Jesus.
  • Discipleship: When Is Enough Enough? – An Equipper article about the relational side of being and making disciples.

 

Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcasts.

Sermon for December 5, 2021 — Second Sunday of Advent

Speaking Of Life 4002 | The Sunrise of Peace

Every time we see the sunrise in all of its splendor and glory, we can certainly feel a sense of warmth and hope for another day. Let us look upon Jesus as he remains to bring light and love into our fractured world just as we hope that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 4002 | The Sunrise of Peace
Michelle Fleming

One of my favorite sunrise experiences was on a beach in Florida. As I looked across the Atlantic Ocean, there was just a faint glimmer of light on the watery horizon. It started as a small pinpoint of light, and then as if by magic, it grew, painting the sky with pink, yellow, and orange. As the light became brighter, the seabirds seemed to wake up and come to life. A new day had started, and I was there to see it.

One thing I really appreciate about the sunrise each day is the gentleness of how the sun rises. It’s not like a switch is flipped and the full light of day floods our homes, startling us out of our sleep. The sun rises slowly, peacefully, urging us to have hope for this new day.

Maybe you’ve had a special sunrise experience, too. Sunrise is a familiar metaphor, one often used to show the start of something new. In the Bible, the priest Zechariah recognized a “sunrise” moment when his son, John the Baptist, was born. If you remember the story, the elderly Zechariah couldn’t speak until John was born because he doubted the angel’s announcement that he and his likewise elderly wife Elizabeth would have a child.

When John was born, Zechariah prophesied about this child’s role in making people ready for the “mighty savior” Jesus, who would come through King David’s descendants:

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. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:76-79 (NRSV)

John the Baptist would make the people ready for the glory of God with us through Jesus’ arrival. God showed his mercy by gently moving people toward the possibility that true worship could be more than following the legalistic customs of the day.

Just as the sunrise begins slowly, with just a glimmer, so John the Baptist was that glimmer of God’s mercy and peace to those who were without hope, sitting “in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

The next time you’re awake for a sunrise, think of God’s gentle mercy that moves all of us toward the way of peace and hope. Watch with patience for that glimmer of light on the horizon, see the pinks and yellows grow, and notice how the birds lift their morning songs of praise.

Let us remember the hope of Jesus’ ultimate return and recognize God’s gentle, peaceful guidance each day.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

 

Malachi 3:1-4 · Luke 1:68-79 · Philippians 1:3-11 · Luke 3:1-6

The theme for this week is how to see. Understanding what we see is an integral part of the Advent season when we’re expectantly preparing for Jesus’s birth. As we move into the second Sunday in Advent, the message of Malachi talks about how God prepares people to receive him by sending a messenger who challenges common perceptions. Luke 1 features Zechariah’s prophecy at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, who would prepare people to see how Jesus would meet their need for salvation like the rising sun’s light dispels the darkness. Paul’s wish in Philippians 1 is that believers would grow in their ability to see and understand the depth of God’s love and compassion for all people. Our sermon text, Luke 3, discusses John the Baptist’s role in fulfilling prophecy that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” helping us understand that our ability to see and perceive often depends on recognizing our blind spots.

Is Seeing Believing?

Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)

In 2015, a picture of a dress became a global topic of discussion. Was it white with gold stripes, or was it blue with black stripes? [show picture of the dress] The dress was going to be worn by Cecilia Bleasdale to her daughter’s wedding. She snapped a picture of the dress and sent it to her daughter. Her daughter disagreed about the perceived colors, and she posted it on Facebook to get her friends’ opinions. Some saw the dress as white with gold lace stripes, and some saw blue with black lace stripes. It actually was blue with black lace stripes, but it highlighted what neuroscientists have been studying for years: that human beings often see or perceive differently for a variety of reasons.

Neuroscientists have studied how the human brain takes our prior beliefs (or expectations) and uses them to interpret what we are experiencing in the present. This is known as Bayesian integration, and “MIT neuroscientists have discovered distinctive brain signals that encode these prior beliefs. They have also found how the brain uses these signals to make judicious decisions in the face of uncertainty” (Trafton).

The book Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds, by Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer, discusses how our bodies can influence our perception and decision-making. For example, studies show that easy-to-read statements or rhyming statements seem truer than statements that are worded in a more complex way or that don’t rhyme. In another study, people who were tired thought distances were farther than they actually were, showing how our physiological needs for food and rest can affect how we perceive reality. One study in the book revealed that people’s accuracy in simple math calculations was impaired up to 45 percent if the resulting answer would contradict a political belief they held (Suttie).

We can find that these skewed perceptions can affect us when it comes to our faith. We can read scripture passages in the Bible, and we think we understand what they mean, but we often forget that we are reading from our own cultural perspective (for this author, that equates to a modern American or Western industrial viewpoint) when the scriptures are an ancient text written to a mostly agrarian people in the Middle East a long time ago. This is why understanding the context of a passage is useful because we learn a little about cultural norms at that time and the audience to whom the scripture was written. By being aware of our inherent biases, we can understand the truth of scripture without resorting to taking verses out of context and misapplying them.

You can take heart that we are not the first group of people to misunderstand scripture. The Jews living during Jesus’s day were watching for a Messiah, but their prior beliefs and expectations made them miss it when he came. Even the message of John the Baptist was not understood. Let’s read today’s text.

[Read Luke 3:1-6, NRSV]

What can we notice about this passage?

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 NRSV)

The first couple of verses read like a “Who’s Who” in terms of political power in ancient Judea. A Roman emperor, Tiberius, ruled over the Roman governor who ruled over local Jewish leaders who were put in place by the Romans. Luke might have taken this opportunity to set the stage for the reader for John the Baptist’s entrance, or he might be contrasting human “kingdoms” with God’s kingdom and God’s way of moving in the world.

It was in this political context that “the word of God came to John” in the wilderness. The “wilderness” has been portrayed in several biblical accounts as a place of desolation, but at the same time, a place of provision. Think about the Old Testament stories of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years with the provision of manna and quail (Exodus 16), or a bit later in the story, Jesus’s experience of Satan’s temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).

We can speculate that John’s time spent in the wilderness enabled him to be able to receive (perceive) the word of God.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3 NRSV)

John’s response to receiving the word of God was to preach repentance (Greek metanoia). Metanoia means more than a simple “I’m sorry.” It means an about-face, a new way of seeing oneself and others that results in transformed behavior.

The next few verses recount Isaiah’s prophecy of the one preparing the way for the Messiah. Straight paths are the most direct and the least confusing ways to get where you want to go. Perhaps verses 4-6 are a metaphor to show how God’s ways are better than human ways.

As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6)

  • 5: Notice the use of contrasts in the verse: valleys are filled, mountains made low, the crooked made straight, rough ways smoothed. The use of contrasts suggests that God’s systems (that is, his ways of moving in our world) often contradict human beings’ typical expectations and beliefs. The prophecy by Isaiah seems to say that for people to understand or perceive what God is doing, there must be a new perspective about oneself and the world. This “new way of seeing” is contrary to our typical tendencies or expectations. We expect mountains to be high and crooked roads to be, well, crooked. These verses symbolically portray the preparation we need in order to “see” Jesus in our world as being different than what we might expect, similar to what our ancient Jewish counterparts had to go through.
  • 6: The “salvation of God” is Jesus: Emmanuel – God with us. The wording “shall see” here often means “to see with the mind” or “to perceive (with inward spiritual perception)” (https://biblehub.com/greek/3708.htm).

Being able to see (or perceive) that Jesus was the Messiah required a new way of thinking, one that broke free of preconceived ideas and expectations. This was true for Jews in the days of John the Baptist, and it is still true for us today.

Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NRSV). How many people saw Jesus but did not realize (or perceive) he was God in the flesh because he was not fitting the script of their preconceived notions? We run the same risk of being blinded by our own cultural and personal biases unless we make an effort to transform the way we view scripture and our world.

Application:

  • Recognize we all are affected by biases. Because we are human, we cannot help but be affected by our culture, our personal history, our education, and lots of other variables. Understanding this helps us take a step back and pause when we begin to feel self-righteous or inflexible when it comes to a particular issue. We need to take a moment to analyze whether our response to God’s word is motivated by his love for us and for others or by firmly held beliefs based on our own perception and preferences.
  • Understand that the truth of scripture is bigger than the cultural context it was written in. We recognize that often scripture seems like it doesn’t apply to us today. When this happens, it’s usually because we may be reading it with a modern, Western viewpoint (or another cultural viewpoint, depending on where you are in the world) rather than asking a few questions:
  • Who is Jesus? Is he the Savior of the world, or just for those I socialize with?
  • Why is the author including this story here?
  • What change is taking place, and what would the significance of that change be to the people living during that time?
  • What does this story reveal about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Repentance (metanoia) is how we prepare our hearts to properly perceive God at work in our world. We engage in “metanoia” when we recognize that our grasp of reality or truth is always affected by our personal beliefs and biases, and even our physiological needs for rest and food. We humbly remain open to the larger truths of scripture that speak to our world today without getting caught in the weeds of legalism, where we pick and choose ancient practices that seem to suit us and expect others to follow. We realize that God’s way of moving in the world is very different from what we might expect or even want (at times), and we continue to grow in our ability to “see” what personal biases stand in the way of fully loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors.

We started with a dress that was blue with black lace… or was it white with gold lace. Our eyes can be easily fooled. More importantly, we learned that our human way of viewing ourselves, others, and the world is easily skewed. By humbly accepting these limitations, holding an attitude of repentance (metanoia) and openness, and asking God for wisdom and discernment, we will be able to see and perceive the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in our own lives and in the lives of others.

For Reference:

https://slate.com/technology/2015/02/what-color-is-this-dress-a-scientist-explains-visual-ambiguity-and-color-constancy.html

https://news.mit.edu/2019/how-expectation-influences-perception-0715

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/eight_reasons_to_distrust_your_own_perceptions

https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-31-6-3

https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-31-6-4

https://biblehub.com/greek/3708.htm

Sermon for December 12, 2021 — Third Sunday of Advent

Speaking Of Life 4003 | The Myth of Instancy

Anyone from a few decades ago can certainly recall how the beginning stages of the internet were just too slow and frustrating. Nowadays, we have information overload everywhere because of how fast everything is. Even when the world demands everything to be in an instant, Paul reminds us to be patient and trust our all-knowing Father who paints the beautiful big picture.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 4003 | The Myth of Instancy
Greg Williams

Most of us remember the dial-up internet of the past—and by past, we don’t mean very long ago, maybe a couple of decades ago. The website scrolled down the page at an incredibly slow pace. It was so frustrating to use, most of us kind of ignored the internet. 

And good luck if anyone answered the phone and shut you down—you had to redial and start the whole thing over! 

Now the target speed for a website download is two seconds. Information goes from our living room to a satellite and across the world as fast as light fills a room. We live in an instantaneous world. We can watch thousands of tv shows, several 24-hour news programs, and millions of hours of bad movies with just a click on a remote.  

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to take this instantaneous attitude into our spiritual lives. We tend to think that Christlikeness will follow conversion, like some kind of simple equation. It’s almost like we want to download the character of Christ into our lives, and if it doesn’t happen right away there’s something wrong. 

We might look at famous passages like this and see immediate spiritual gratification: 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Philippians 4:4-6 (ESV)

A look at the language here helps us out: 

 “Rejoice in the Lord always… do not worry about anything…” These phrases are a grammatical construct called the present imperative. They point to prolonged habit, discipline—or as one theologian called it “a long obedience in the same direction.” 

In other words, it takes time. The shifting and shaping into Christ-centered maturity doesn’t happen immediately. They aren’t meant to. The power of the Holy Spirit works in amazing and surprising ways, but so often it is the slow erosion and reshaping of day after day and year after year. Learning, relearning, and going deeper.

The point is, we don’t want to let the myth of instancy dictate the way we pursue Christ. Let’s stay in step with the Spirit, trusting that he will get us where we need to be, even if the journey is long.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life. 

Zephaniah 3:14-20 · Isaiah 12:2-6 · Philippians 4:4-7 · Luke 3:7-18

The theme for this third Sunday of Advent week is the arrival of God. Zephaniah speaks words of comfort about God’s arrival – bringing the people home, saving the lame and gathering the outcast. Isaiah speaks about the day of God’s arrival, when they will “draw water from the wells of salvation.” Philippians talks about how the Lord is near, and we should let our gentleness be known to all, not pointing ourselves, but to him. These words anticipate the arrival of God, when his Spirit moves unmistakably, and we can only stand back in awe. Luke 3, on which our sermon is based, tells us about John the Baptist, or “Crazy John” as he’s been called. John’s great moment was to announce the arrival of God and get off the stage. He announced that arrival, and Jesus appeared.

Just the Right Kind of Crazy: John the Baptist

Luke 3:7-17 ESV

Read or have someone read the text: Luke 3:7-17 ESV.

Have you ever had one of those friends who was maybe a little strange? An eccentric who lived out of sync with the rest of the world. Someone who perpetually wore styles a decade old? Went barefoot in the winter? Was always off in their head? And yet also spoke truth? Sometimes outsider folks like this have insight the rest of us don’t.

This might be a good place for a story about someone who everybody else doesn’t “get,” but who sees further into life than they do. Be gentle.

“Crazy John” is what they called him on the popular series “The Chosen.” He looks the part – hair going out in all directions, eyes a little crossed, and, other than the occasional baptism, no bath in quite a while. Most of the time, when we see John the Baptist portrayed in a movie or art, Crazy John is the accurate description.

He’s certainly not someone we think about at Christmas, especially passages like the lectionary reading this week. Brood of vipers, ax at the root of the tree, unquenchable fire – not exactly the “good tidings we bring” choruses we are used to hearing this time of year.

But it’s important to keep the whole life of Jesus out in front us, not just stick to some favorite parts. The manger led to the cross; his baptism led to his crown of thorns. However, in a similar way, his brutal death had his resurrection on its heels; and his anguished night prayers became songs of glory.

In the end, Crazy John is a perfect reading for Advent for a few reasons, and that’s what we’ll explore today:

  • Crazy John spoke in riddles.
  • Crazy John was insanely bold.
  • Crazy John lived upside down.

Crazy John spoke in riddles

Stones. Trees. Threshing wheat. These were the concrete metaphors that were all around the people in the ancient world. These were the riddles that Crazy John used to get people’s attention.

If we push back further, we can see that some of these riddles connected with the story of Israel. The ax is already at the root of the trees (v. 9). John is connecting them with the Israel narrative, specifically from Isaiah.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:13 ESV)

Isaiah, and John by Isaiah, speaks to them of God’s judgment when Israel strays from him. Cut down the mighty tree, in this case Israel, and the remnant remains.

The issue in John’s era, among others, was that God’s people were relying on their heritage instead of acting like God’s people. Many times, John and Jesus remind the people of Israel that knowing God is a matter of heart, not heritage.

For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8 ESV)

The ax is at the root of the tree because the people had strayed from God and relied instead on their rituals and heritage. God himself is on the move and about to come and set things straight—in person.

Finally, a threshing floor. In Jesus’ day, you had to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat was the kernel that could be eaten or made into bread; the chaff was the useless shell that needed to be thrown away.

The threshing floor was a packed dirt or rocky flat area where the wheat was laid out to dry. Threshing floors were often on a hill so the wind could blow away the useless husks of chaff. When the wheat was dry, the farmer would use a winnowing fork or fan to throw the wheat into the air. The chaff would blow away and the heavier kernels would fall to the ground. It was about separating, taking away the useless from the useful, the bad from the good.

So far, this doesn’t sound like your usual Christmas fare. Not a lot of babies in mangers and songs to sing at this point— this sounds more like an earthquake.

Yet we have to remember that this earthquake of images was God on the move. The paradigm was shifting; the reality of God’s relationship with humanity was coming into focus. So, pardon the disruption! When God changes us, this is how it can feel – earth-shattering, growing pains.

Crazy John reminds us that advent and Christmas are not just about comfort but transformation. Not only will you be immensely comforted and surrounded in love when you meet Jesus, but you will also never be the same. Everything changes.

The great writer C.S. Lewis describes his own reluctant conversion in similar terms:

You must picture me alone in that room night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

Crazy John was insanely bold

Crazy John was insanely bold. We have to look at who John the Baptist is talking to here. These are people who felt a spiritual hunger and thirst; those who were the most hypocritical and comfortable gave John a wide berth. The people here who say, “What should we do then?” (v. 10), are for the most part “good” people. These are the people who see there is something going on, something new happening, and they are drawn to that because their hearts are in some measure tenderized by God.

What John points out to the tax collectors, the soldiers, and the ordinary citizens are the everyday sins. These are the “understood” sins, the little sleight-of-hand, “everybody does that” kind of sins. He’s pointing out that your food and goods surplus belongs to the poor, and the “accepted” evils of the tax collector culture – skimming some off the top – is unacceptable. He points out that the “accepted” evils of the soldiers’ world – extorting people for extra cash, skimming off the top, too – is also unacceptable. Crazy John boldly points out – to all levels of society, no matter how high – that Jesus is here to take sin out by the roots, not to improve the building or remodel the building, but to demolish it and start rebuilding from the ground up.

We have such “accepted sins” in our own culture; sins that go against God’s design for our lives and our happiness. Being dishonest on our taxes, stealing small items from work, emotional infidelity, cohabiting, mistreating others. They are sins that go against sharing God’s love and purpose for our lives, but sins that our culture often looks on with a helpless shrug – that’s just the way things are. Plenty of good and moral people are in these circumstances.

John points out here that no sin, even the culturally acceptable ones, will work in God’s eyes. That’s not living in our true identity. He is pointing out that we don’t just need a slight modification of behavior or a refreshing of our perspective, but we need a new heart and soul. We need Jesus to take down our old concepts of righteousness and goodness and build the real thing in its place.

As we’ve pointed out above, Crazy John takes aim at the stock answer that many gave in those days: We have Abraham as our father (v. 8). Because they are ethnically Hebrew, God’s chosen people, many believed they would be excluded from God’s judgment. A word of judgment, from John the Baptist to them, would be unnecessary – even insulting – in their eyes.

That’s the other thing about Crazy John that upset the establishment – the kind of people he was baptizing. Baptism at the time was a ritual for the conversion of Gentiles into Jews. If someone didn’t grow up in the heritage, but wanted to join the Jewish faith, they used the water ritual of baptism to symbolize that.

But here John is baptizing Jewish people! This is like us telling Billy Graham he needs to come forward for an altar call or offering to dunk our denominational leaders in the closest river!

Crazy John was insanely bold. He was causing not just a stir, but a revolution. Do we see that in our own lives – someone pressing us back on the Lord, reminding us again that we are incomplete without Jesus?

Think of all the humbling circumstances in life, of which there are many, and how they cause us to trust again in the one who created life. Think of even great evangelists like Ravi Zacharias who made such an impact for the kingdom and yet was helpless in front of his own addictions and secret sins.

We all need a Savior, we are all on our knees before him, brought there by life itself. We all need the healing waters of Crazy John, no matter who we think we are.

Crazy John lived upside down

But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (Luke 3:16 ESV)

A century and a half before John, a Jewish revolutionary had started a successful revolution against the Seleucid Empire, who was the occupying power of the time. He’d started the movement by gathering the people in the wilderness to rally against the empire. Crazy John looked like he was doing the same thing again, this time against Rome.

Here he was, out in the desert, gathering the people. Needless to say, the people picked up his signals quickly and headed out to see what was going on. Crazy John caused a stir, even though this was not his ultimate plan. If he was like the rest of us, he might be tempted to cash in on the fame this offered him, however short-lived.

But Crazy John was just the right kind of crazy.

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16 ESV)

Elsewhere, John had said:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30 ESV)

Crazy John lived upside down. He didn’t want to see his name in lights; he didn’t want to grasp onto the unsatisfying fruit of fame. His greatest dream was to be part of God’s movement, and to disappear as soon as Jesus arrived.

Probably John’s most famous verse is “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23 ESV). These are the words of the prophet Isaiah, preparing for God himself to come through. Just after Crazy John quotes these words, Jesus arrives. John was announcing the arrival of God, and then almost immediately he disappears from the Gospels.

Crazy John was just the right kind of crazy. He lived outside of our expectations, he spoke bold truth to those in power, even to Herod, who eventually had him killed, and he lay it all down as soon as Jesus arrived on the scene.

What can we learn from Crazy John?

  • He spoke in riddles. Crazy John’s words talked about God’s judgment – the fact that we need a Savior because we can’t make it on our own. This is a riddle to us, who sometimes think we’ve got it figured out or at least that someone does. John’s punchline is that we don’t need a tune-up, we need an overhaul, we need to learn to live life from the One who created it.
  • He was insanely bold. John was a kind of free agent who spoke truth to all levels of society and even told the “professionally” religious people that they needed to meet God again. How do we live with this kind of boldness, standing up for those without a voice, living outside of the popularity contests and status seeking that run our world?
  • He lived upside down. Do we step off the stage when Jesus arrives? Or do we steal the spotlight and make it all about ourselves? It’s far too tempting, especially when we have a listening audience, to forget that we are only the opening act. But when we remember this, we live in freedom! We are freed from our insatiable egos to step back and watch what God will do.

Are we the right kind of crazy? There is a lot we can learn from the wild-eyed prophet who walked out of the desert one day wearing camel hair and eating bugs to become the herald of the King himself.

Sermon for December 19, 2021 — Fourth Sunday of Advent

Speaking Of Life 4004 | The Witness of Christmas Music

Bright lights twinkling in the moonlight, decorations in homes, and of course the joyful sound of carols resounding through the night are markers that Christmas is here. When Mary was waiting for Jesus’ birth, she sang a song of hope and love. She was looking forward to the marvelous wonders that Jesus would bring into the world! Mary reminds us to be hopeful and joyful as we celebrate the coming of our Savior, Jesus.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 4004 | The Witness of Christmas Music
Heber Ticas

Can you imagine the Christmas season without Christmas carols? The music of Christmas is one of my favorite parts of the season. And I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t like Christmas music because it is virtually impossible to avoid as Christmas approaches.

In fact, I would imagine, if you never went to church and never looked at a calendar, you will still know when Christmas was close. Even in its commercialized ways, Christmas music has a way of announcing to the world that something exciting and celebratory is coming. As Christmas day approaches, the airwaves become saturated with the distinctive sounds of carols and music that pave the way for celebration. You can hardly turn on the radio without being greeted by some familiar Christmas jingle. And in the Church, music takes a deafening turn during the Advent season to usher in the celebration of the birth of Jesus. What an amazing witness Christmas music provides to the entire world of the coming of Jesus Christ, her rightful King.

Admittedly, some Christmas songs are better than others and not all reflect in their lyrics an accurate portrayal of what Christmas is all about. Some songs have nothing to do with Jesus. But this does not stop the witness that something in our world is about to change. The change in music anticipates the change that Christmas is bringing.

Did you know that this witness in music was also part of the first Christmas celebration? The Gospel of Luke in the first two chapters makes this very clear. There are five songs, two by men, two by women, and one by a host of heavenly angels. Each in their own way anticipates and announces the coming of Jesus. The witness is clear. When Jesus breaks in, worship breaks out.

Here is one song sang by Mary, as she awaits to give birth to Jesus:

With all my heart
I praise the Lord,
and I am glad
because of God my Savior.
He cares for me,
his humble servant.
From now on,
all people will say
God has blessed me.
God All-Powerful has done
great things for me,
and his name is holy.
He always shows mercy
to everyone
who worships him.

Luke 1:46-50 (CEV)

Mary’s song anticipates and celebrates the wonderful changes that are coming with Jesus’ birth—changes for her, her people, and the whole world. We too can lift up our voices in praise and worship, joining with Mary, the angels, and others, as we witness in song to each other, and to the world, the glorious good news of the coming of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Mi nombre es Heber Ticas, Hablando de Vida.

Psalm 80:1-7 • Micah 5:2-5a • Hebrews 10:5-10 • Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

This week’s theme is heightened expectations of Christ’s coming. The call to worship Psalm looks for restoration of salvation in its address to God as shepherd of Israel. Micah 5 anticipates the birth of a great ruler from the small village of Bethlehem. Luke 1 shares with us the expectant hope of the birth of Jesus from the lips of Mary and Elizabeth. Hebrews 10 explores the meaning of the Christ coming into the world by the Incarnation.

The Great Reversal

Luke 1:39-45 (ESV)

Today marks the last stop of our Advent journey on the liturgical calendar. During our journey we have been following along in the Gospel of Luke, sharing in the anticipation and expectation the stories bring us into. Advent is a time where we can be reminded that God does not remain distant or aloof from his creation. He aims to break in with his hope, peace, joy, and love. And he has done this most definitely in his Son Jesus Christ. Today, we will look at one more story, and a song from the lips of Elizabeth, an elderly woman who had been barren her entire life.

The story begins after Mary is visited by an angel who tells her she will give birth to the Son of God. A message like that will get you moving, and that’s exactly what Mary does.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-40 ESV)

Elizabeth is Mary’s relative, and Mary doesn’t want to waste any time in telling her this surprising news. The distance from Nazareth to Zechariah’s home in Judea could have been between fifty to seventy miles. That is quite a long trip for Mary to ponder all that has happened. Considering Mary is not married, you can imagine how she may have worked over in her mind how she would be received when she delivered the news that she was pregnant. But Mary has also been informed that Elizabeth has a surprise of her own. She, too, although advanced in age and previously barren, is pregnant as well. This will be some reunion, for sure.

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:41-42 ESV)

This response from Elizabeth begins a pattern of reversals that the birth of Jesus will bring about. Remember, Elizabeth had been barren her entire life. During this time in ancient Israel, this would have been looked upon as a curse. Elizabeth had lived many years under the curse of being fruitless, bearing the shame and stigma that came with it. But here, by simply hearing the greeting of Mary, “the baby leaped in her womb.” What an instant reminder to Elizabeth that her curse had been reversed. She had been blessed. Not only that, “filled with the Holy Spirit” she spoke words of blessing to Mary. This is a wonderful picture of blessing. When God blesses, his blessings are meant to be shared. Elizabeth shares her blessing by saying, “Blessed are you among women.” Can you imagine what those words would have meant for Mary? Here she is, a woman who by all accounts is in a very shameful situation: pregnant and unmarried. In her culture she would be the least among women, not the other way round. Another reversal. What grace the Spirit poured out on Elizabeth! Mary didn’t even have to tell the news of her pregnancy and hold her breath for her relative’s response.

We also see Elizabeth’s response to be in line with being a prophet, or in her case a prophetess. She also says, “blessed is the fruit of your womb!” The text does not state that Mary told her about her pregnancy. But it appears the Spirit let her in on Mary’s secret and she proclaimed it boldly. This response stands in contrast to her husband Zechariah, the priest, who was muted by the angel Gabriel for questioning the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Another reversal of sorts. And Elizabeth is not done uttering words of praise that are Spirit inspired.

“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43 ESV)

Elizabeth through the Spirit knows who Mary’s child is, for she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” This is a staggering prophetic proclamation. She sees beyond what many would consider an unwanted pregnancy and grasps God’s work in it. She sees that this young teenage girl, whom many will judge as lowly and shameful, is in fact the mother of the Lord in whose name “every knee should bend” (Phil. 2:10).

How often do we miss the Lord’s presence and what he is doing because we hold to our culturally induced assumptions? When Elizabeth greets Mary with honor, she challenges social expectations. Mary, as an unmarried pregnant woman, should expect to be a social embarrassment full of shame. She should expect to be ostracized and frowned on by her older relative, especially one from a religious family. Yet Elizabeth is humbled by her own experience, and she has seen the cost of humiliation and exclusion. In her culture, if a woman failed to produce offspring, she had failed at what was seen as her primary purpose in life. For Elizabeth, this meant she had endured a lifetime of being looked on as a failure. Her own miraculous pregnancy has opened her eyes to God’s grace that grants great reversals. Earlier Luke records Elizabeth’s words about this experience: “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:25). After all the wait, even in her old age, she is now seen as an honorable married woman, carrying her husband’s son.

God’s grace extended to her enables her to open her arms and her home to this relative. By welcoming, blessing, and celebrating Mary and her pregnancy she has participated in the reversal the Lord is bringing by turning what would have been a moment of shame into a lasting proclamation of joy and honor. In this way, Elizabeth points to the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus shows to prostitutes and sinners.

We too can bear witness to Christ when we open our hearts and homes to those our culture may reject. We need to let the Spirit open our mouths to speak blessing to those others have cursed. When we see God working in others, it can do wonders to tell them what you see God doing. We can all be encouraged and blessed by the words of an “Elizabeth” who speaks truth and grace into our lives. We can do this when we know that God is present and that he is a blessing God.

Also, notice the humility in Elizabeth’s responses. This enables the dialogue between Elizabeth and Mary to portray Jesus as more important than John. There is no competition between mothers in this intimate scene. The focus is on the Advent of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

“For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:44 ESV)

Mary and Elizabeth, in this way, signify in their response the reality that is coming in the birth of Jesus. Jesus is God’s Word that greets us. His Word achieves the fitting response of worship portrayed by Elizabeth’s baby leaping for joy. The relation between John and Jesus is being laid down. John responds to Jesus. This is seen clearly in John the Baptist in how he pointed others to follow Christ instead of following him. The church, like John, is to be about responding to our Lord in worship and witness. We worship Jesus and his Father in the Spirit while pointing others to the one whom we worship. The church is not called to point to itself. Our joy is responding to God’s greeting that comes to us in Jesus Christ and then pointing others to turn their ears to hear the same greeting.

Another detail in this story that portrays Jesus as greater than John is the nature of their miraculous conceptions. It is an amazing miracle for an elderly woman who has been barren her entire life to conceive of a child with her husband. But it is a far greater miracle for Mary to conceive of a child as a virgin. Elizabeth’s miracle is a most improbable turn of events. Mary’s miracle is an absolute impossibility. Such a miracle would be hard to believe, and Elizabeth speaks to that next.

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45 ESV)

Mary is blessed not only for being chosen to be the Lord’s mother, but also for trusting in God’s promise. When Elizabeth uses the word “blessed” in verse 42, she uses the term eulogemene, and she refers to the blessing that comes to both present and future generations praising and speaking well of her and her child. The word for “blessed” used in verse 45, however, is the word makaria, and is the same word Jesus used in the Beatitudes. Elizabeth’s words of blessing could be translated as “Happy is she who believed…” So, even though she is blessed by having her situation reversed from shame to honor, she has a deeper divine blessing that comes by placing her trust in God’s word spoken to her. This is the deep blessing, an abiding “happiness” that comes in trusting God, putting all our hope in him, even when we do not experience in the present moment, or even in future generations, any real social reversals.

Like Mary, our present circumstances, from other people’s point of view, may not appear to have changed any. But Mary does not place her trust or response to what those around her say or believe. She has heard the Lord’s promises of blessing spoken to her and she lives in faithful response to that word. Elizabeth is celebrating Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God’s word to her, even as impossible as it may seem. How might we also celebrate the moments of faith in our fellow “relatives”—our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Baptism is a moment of great celebration as a church welcomes someone into the divine blessing of living in a trust relationship with the Lord. And this is a witness to the world, to see brothers and sisters celebrating one another, not because their current social status has changed, but because they believe in the Lord and the ultimate fulfillment of his promises to them. That’s a blessing no one can take away.

Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon will also add words of blessing, praising God for what he is doing in the Advent of Christ. May they encourage us to add our own words and acts of praise and worship to the Father, whether in song or humble service to others. May we become witnesses to the Lord who brings the great reversal, removing our shame and sharing with us his honor. In doing so we can participate in the blessing of being a blessing.

Message for December 24 or 25 – Christmas Drama

Written by Rick Shallenberger

The format is “Reader’s Theater.” You are all telling different views of the same story. In this particular Reader’s Theater format, you aren’t in conversation with each other, but you will be feeding off each other’s comments – as if the words another says said just triggered your own thought, or just fit in perfectly with your next thought. You do not have to memorize your lines, but you should look over them several times so you can read with feeling and emotion.

You should start with Christmas songs and a Scripture reading and then insert Scripture readings and songs in between the scenes. A list of suggested songs and Scripture readings will be at the end.

At the opening, all three readers will be seated behind music stands, and the narrator will be behind the lectern. As the narrator introduces each reader, he/she will stand and turn on the music stand light.

 Most statements interrupt each other. It would be good to practice these transitions ahead of time. I’d suggest sitting and reading through it together and then having rehearsal before the Christmas Event.

 The story is told in three parts or scenes, and it is suggested to have congregational Christmas hymns/songs between the scenes. We include some suggestions.

 Characters include a narrator and up to nine readers. (You can have the same readers read in more than one scene if you choose.)

 Scene one takes place in heaven, where three angels are talking to an unknown person (the audience) sharing their reaction to being told the Son of God is going to become human.

Scene two takes place just after Jesus’ birth. The three characters, Simeon, Anna and Mary, the mother of Jesus, all speculate on what this birth will ultimately mean to humanity.

Scene three is in modern times: Three Christians speculate about if there is something more behind Jesus becoming flesh than just the Savior coming to earth. (Note: Though I have given the three people in this final scene gender identity, it was only to make the writing easier. You can easily change the gender, and then change a few words for the narrator.)

 Scene One: Angels Are Included in the Plan

Narrator: Imagine what it was like just before the Son of God became flesh. We can only speculate how exciting things were in heaven. Today, we listen in as three angels, who have just returned from a meeting with the archangel Gabriel, share their take on the Incarnation. Let’s listen to these three angels: Katallage, Apokalupsis, and Koinonia.

Katallage: My name is Katallage (ka-ta-la-gay)

Apokalupsis: My name is Apokalupsis (apoka-loopsis)

Koinonia: My name is Koinonia (Koi- no-nee-a)

All three (in unison): And I want to tell you an amazing story.

Katallage: I’d been told for years that something was going to happen that would literally change everything. I’d heard that before and I’d seen some amazing things in my life, but when I was summoned today to see Gabriel, the energy in the meeting was contagious. I’d never seen Gabriel so bright, so majestic, so bursting with joy and excitement…

Apokalupsis: …joy and excitement. He was pacing back and forth – OK, you could say flying back and forth, and he had this glow in his eyes I’d never seen before. I’ve seen him excited before, but the look in his eyes just stopped me in my tracks. I knew something big was about to happen. Gabriel was smiling…

Koinonia: … He was smiling ear to ear as he told me that I had been invited to be part of the most amazing feat that God had ever planned. This event was planned before anything else had been created, he said. I figured I knew what it was, but I asked anyway. He paused, threw out his arms to accentuate the point and said,

All three: The Incarnation…

Katallage: The Son of God was giving up his robe of light and was planning to enter his creation… He was putting on skin and going…

Apokalupsis: … going to become at one with his creation. The one we worshipped as God, the Creator, the Son of God, was going to become the Son of Man. He was going to become. …

Koinonia: …to become human. I knew this day was coming; we all did. We’d heard about this plan for a long time. We looked forward to this time like no other time in our existence, We know the most important event for mankind was the day the Son of God would …

Katallage: …would roar on the scene as a king on a white horse and rule the world. The world needed a good king, a righteous king, a king who knew the best way to defeat the enemies of darkness. We knew that one day all would know him…

Apokalupsis: …know him as King of kings and Lord of lords. I got excited as I looked at Gabriel and the others and said, So it’s true. The Son is going to be King? Gabriel laughed and said, “All in due time, but first he’s going to become a baby.

All three: A baby?

Katallage: A baby, Gabriel said. We knew the plan was for the Word, the Son of God to become flesh and dwell among humans and that many would see his glory. But a baby? “Why a baby?” I asked. Then Gabriel said something I’ll never forget. He said…

Apokalupsis: He said, “He’s becoming a baby so he can identify with all of humanity and feel their pain, live their life and heal all their sinfulness. You’ve been trained to work right alongside him.”

Koinonia: I’ve been trained to work right alongside him, Gabriel said. And that’s when I got excited. All the training I’d been through was going to play out in this amazing plan of God’s. We knew the name of the plan, it was called Incarnation.

Katallage: …Incarnation. But we also knew that most people would just refer to it as Christmas. Gabriel told me that while many people would understand the concept of Jesus being God’s gift to the world, others might just focus on gifts, and gift giving. Still, many songs would be written about Jesus to celebrate the season…

Apokalupsis: … celebrate the season. They would use lights to remind everyone that Jesus was the light of the world. Many would use an evergreen tree to remind people that Jesus is alive year-round. Many would be extra nice to each other during the season and shout out greetings to one another. Many would become more generous…

Koinonia: …generous during the season as they focused on the plight of others. And all this was good, Gabriel said, but they would miss out on one of the main reasons the Son of God wanted to become part of his creation. He wanted to show them who the Father is…

Katallage:…who the Father is. He wants them to know and believe that God is not and never was mad at them. He’s their Father who loves them. Gabriel said the Son wants them to see the Father as a Papa/Father, a wonderful, joy-filled, affectionate Father who loves them more than they could ever know. The Son wants to show them that they were not separated from this Father/God as they believed…

Apokalupsis: They believed they were separated from the Father because of their sins, Gabriel said, and the Son wants to show them just because God hates sin does not mean he hates the sinner. He could never hate his children. He hates sin because he sees what sin does to his children. He sees the pain and anguish sin causes. The Son wants to show them the Father’s love by not only living with them, but by becoming one of them.

Koinonia: …becoming one of them, Gabriel said, the Father will be showing through the Son that one of his greatest desires is to restore the relationship he had with them from the beginning. When he created them in his image, he walked with them and talked with them in the garden. They were in relationship – a relationship that was destroyed through sin and the lies the enemy told them about God. The Son wants to restore this relationship and Gabriel said my training was going to help make this happen.

Katallage: My training was going to help make this happen. I’ve been trained to help people see the truth…,

Apokalupsis: …and to help others see God as a God of love and forgiveness.

Koinonia: I’ve been trained to bring people together and help them see they are all on the same side. To help them work together and have common goals and plans.

Apokalupsis: My name is Apokalupsis – which means revelation – The Father was revealed by the Son.

Katallage: My name is Katallage – which means reconciliation – all will be reconciled back to good relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit.

Koinonia: My name is Koinonia – which means communion – all are included in the Son who is in the Father, by the indwelling love and power of the Spirit.

Narrator: Revelation, Reconciliation, Communion – interesting names for these angels. Could there be more to the story of Christmas than meets the eye? Could Christmas actually be about more than Christ becoming a baby in a manger? Could Christmas also be about revelation? Could it be about reconciliation? Could it be about communion? These are good questions we should ponder. Perhaps the next scene will shed some light. We’ll be back in just a moment when we will hear from three people who were awaiting the Messiah in very special ways.

For now I turn it over to the worship leader.

[Insert a song and perhaps a Scripture reading.]

 

Scene Two: The Wonder of it All

Narrator: Every good Jew knew some prophecies about the Messiah. These prophecies were taught in the synagogues and passed down from generation to generation. There were songs about Emmanuel – God with us. Today we will hear from three people who were waiting for the Messiah in special ways. One had been promised he would see the Messiah before he died; another spent her days and nights at the temple worshipping God. The third is a young lady who is a virgin, yet who has just given birth to a baby who, she was told, is the Son of God. Let’s listen to Simeon, the prophetess Anna, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

All Three: I can’t help but wonder… (pause as if contemplating a deep thought)

Anna: I can’t help but wonder if God is showing me something of himself in this little baby boy.

Simeon: I can’t help but wonder how this baby is going to take away Israel’s pain and suffering.

Mary: I can’t help but wonder why the Son of God let himself become human and be just like one of us.

Anna: I’ve always been one to seek God through prayer. I’ve been praying for the Messiah to come for many years.

Simeon: For many years I’ve been praying that God would restore glory to his people Israel. We turned our back on God, and for a long time I feared he’d turned his back on us. But God was always good to me, and I felt the presence of his Spirit in me. I can’t explain it, but I know God is with me.

Mary: The Son of God was in me – it’s hard to put my mind around this. He was in me and because he is my son, I am also part of him. What does this mean? How can the Messiah be both human and God? It’s more than my poor mind can grasp and I’m asking God to shed some light on what it all means. Surely, God is teaching me…

Anna: God is teaching me more and more about him. I spend all my time at the temple. I fast often, I pray many times a day in my effort to really know God. Over the years he has spoken to me and has revealed things to me. I became known as a prophetess as God revealed more and more things to me…

Simeon: As God revealed more and more things to me, I pleaded with him to let me see God glorified by his nation once more. I wanted the world to know God was with us. I felt it was going to happen soon. Then one day the Spirit spoke to me…

Mary: The Sprit spoke to me and affirmed that God was teaching me. The Spirit said I was part of a great spiritual truth. What could these things mean?

Anna: “What could these things mean?” God told me that Jesus would be called the Son of Man as well as the Son of God. “When you see Jesus,” God said, “you will see my Son. When you see my Son, you will see the Anointed One, you will see the Messiah.”

Simeon: “You will see the Messiah,” the Spirit said to me. “Before you leave this earth, you will see the One who will restore Israel. You will see the One who is Anointed to save the world. You will see the One who brings forgiveness. You will see the one who is just and true and full of mercy. You will see the one who restores all things. You will see the glory of the Father.”

Mary: “You will see the glory of the Father” was what the Spirit said to me. So what is this glory, I wondered? I can’t help but wonder…

Anna: I can’t help but wonder at these words. Emmanuel, Anointed One, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God. What does this all mean? I can’t help but wonder…

Simeon: I can’t help but wonder about this restoration, this forgiveness, this saving, this justice, truth and mercy, this glory of God. I can’t help but wonder….

All Three: I wonder… (Again, pause as if in deep thought)

Anna: I wonder… This baby Jesus is also called Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us,” hmmm, so he is not just the Messiah coming to save, but he is God coming to live with us. And if he is called the Son of God, then he must be the Son of the Father. I’ve not really thought of God as a Father. I’ve thought of him as the Creator, the Omnipotent one, the Righteous One, the Holy One, Jehovah – but a Father? I wonder…

Simeon: I wonder… The Spirit told me Jesus was bringing forgiveness and mercy. That he is restoring us back to God, and that the restoration goes far beyond Israel? I wonder….

Mary: I wonder… There is a bond between Jesus and me. I am his mother, and he is my child. And because he is the Son of God, could there also be a bond between me and God that I never dreamed possible? I can’t help but wonder….

Anna: I wonder… If Jesus is one of us – and he is revealing that God is his Father, that means God is also my Father – which is relationship. Could it be that this baby is revealing what it means to be in relationship with God? Is this what it means to really be human? Is Jesus here to reveal, to restore and to reconcile?

Simeon: Jesus is restoring and reconciling, the Spirit told me. He is here to restore us to God. I wonder…

Mary: I wonder… It seems clear Jesus is showing us that God wants to be closer to us. Not only has he become one with us, but he wants to be in relationship with us. As I love him, he also loves me. It’s amazing, and it makes me wonder…

All three: I wonder….

Narrator: A lot to wonder about. We first met three angels whose names were revelation, reconciliation and communion. Now we’ve heard from three who were integral parts of the story of Jesus’ birth, and they talked about revelation, reconciliation, and communion. We’re going to sing a hymn and then come back and hear from three more people. The next scene takes place in the present. For now, let’s turn it over to our worship team.

[Insert a song and perhaps a Scripture reading.]

 

Scene Three: The Best Christmas Ever…

Narrator: The Christmas season means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it’s a time when extended family gets together to share meals, music and gifts. For others, it’s a very lonely time of the year. Many realize Christmas is about Jesus, but not all make him part of the celebration. Part of the reason is that people seem to have missed out on what the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is all about. Some believe Jesus came to forgive us and that’s it. Others believe Jesus came to judge the world. During this final scene, we will hear from three people who are giving thought to what Christmas is all about. We will join them as they come to understand the true meaning of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

Carla is a new Christian who is excited about Christ.

Rochelle was a Christian through college but slid backwards for a number of years and then returned – fearful of the reception she was going to receive.

Charles has been a Christian for a long time and recently started to see what his personal journey with Jesus is all about.

All three: It’s the best Christmas ever…

Carla: My best friend and I have known each other since we were kids. I always knew she went to church, but I never thought about it much. She never pushed her beliefs on me, and she didn’t judge me for not going to church. I was always surprised she didn’t treat me as if I was going to hell.

Rochelle: I was going to hell; I just knew it. I grew up going to church. I went to Sunday school and learned all my lessons. I was even baptized when I was a kid. It was the thing to do, and I believed it was important. I started questioning things in high school. Church just wasn’t fun anymore and it seemed to just be about things I was not supposed to do. I could tell you everything my church was against, but I would have a hard time telling you what it was for. So I stopped going.

Charles: I stopped going to church because I felt I had to, and I started going to church because I wanted to. I’m not sure when my thinking changed, but one day it hit me that I was no longer going to church just because of the worship, or because I liked the preaching, or because of the mission we were doing. Those things were important, but church was really about relationships. The relationships my friends and I had…

Carla: My friend and I had a relationship that made me start to ask her questions about her beliefs. Even though we had been friends for years, I’d never really asked her about her beliefs. She had invited me to her church from time to time, but she never pushed it and that always meant something to me. All she said was that God loved me just as I was.

Rochelle: I wished God would love me just as I was, but I knew that wasn’t possible – or at least I believed it wasn’t possible. There were so many rules and so many things that would make God mad at me that I just stopped trying. For a while I went to church on Christmas and Easter because that made my family happy; but I felt like a hypocrite. I was afraid of God, but after a time, I even stopped going at Christmas and Easter. I wanted to be with people who cared about me, not with people who were judging me. I wanted to be where I could love and be loved, not at church.

Charles: Church is a place where you can love and be loved. One day I realized God loved the people I was worshipping with. Even though they were sinners like me, they were God’s beloved children, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I started to feel that somehow we were all connected. I started to see that God’s plan was about relationships.

Carla: God’s plan was about relationships, not rules, my friend told me. As she talked about God, she introduced me to Jesus. I was amazed at the story of Jesus being God and coming to this earth to live as a human. My friend told me Jesus became one of us because God loves us. My friend had meaning in her life from being in a relationship with Jesus. I was impressed. I wanted this; I wanted my life to have meaning.

Rochelle: I wanted my life to have meaning and so I tried all kinds of different things. I worked hard in school to be the best I could be. I started climbing the corporate ladder. I even tried some drugs and alcohol, but that didn’t do anything for me. One day as I shared with a friend that I wanted more out of life, she told me about her relationship with Jesus and how amazing it was to be close to God. The way she talked about church made it sound good – not at all like I had experienced. I told her I knew I was going to hell because I had rejected God. She hugged me and told me that I might have rejected God, but he never rejected me. She asked me to come to church with her. She said God only wanted to share his love and life with me.

Charles: Sharing God’s love and life with others is what God’s plan is all about. I started to see that God’s number-one focus is on relationships. Then while studying one day, I started to see what Jesus meant when he said he and the Father were one, and then he prayed that we would be one just as he was one with the Father. I was starting to get the idea of oneness, family, unity, community. I started to ask God to help me see more. I wanted to really know Jesus.

Carla: I wanted to really know this Jesus my friend talked about. I started going to church with my friend and it was amazing. Everyone was so nice. They taught that God loved all people and he was the Father to all people. Going to church was, well, amazing…

Rochelle: Going to church was amazing. The people made me feel so welcome. They didn’t treat me as a sinner who had gone astray – they treated me as if I was important to them and to God. The pastor told me, “God has always loved you. He’s beside himself with joy that you want to be with him again.” I felt so good when I went home that day. I prayed for the first time in years. It wasn’t much; it was just, “God, thank you…”

Charles: God, thank you for helping me see the amazing work Jesus is doing in me and in everyone. This is the best Christmas ever…

Carla: It’s the best Christmas ever… God is showing me more and more about who he is, what his plan is for me and how much he loves me. He’s helped me look at other people differently by showing me how much he loves them. This is the best Christmas ever…

Rochelle: This is the best Christmas ever. I’ve been back at church for a few months now and I’ve shared my story with several people. No one has judged me; they’ve all just praised God that I’ve returned. It’s amazing. I really thought God was mad at me; but he was never mad. All the time I was gone, God was with me, working things out so that one day I would see him more clearly and want to walk with him again. I’ve learned so much and I’m telling you, this Christmas, I’m really getting what it’s all about.

All Three: Christmas is about Jesus, and it’s about me.

Carla: God used my friend to help me see who Jesus really is. Christmas is much, much more than the baby in the manger…

Rochelle: The baby in the manger is only part of the Christmas story. Jesus came to share the Father’s love with us and to teach us that even when we mess up – and we do mess up a lot – that God doesn’t stop loving us or reaching out to us. He wants us to love others and to be loved. He wants us to share in the joy of bringing good news to other people.

Charles: Bringing good news to other people is telling them Christmas is about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit being in unity with humans. It’s about us becoming one with God and with each other. Christmas is…

Carla: Christmas is about revelation, and so much more…

Rochelle: Christmas is about reconciliation, and so much more…

Charles: Christmas is about communion, and so much more.

All three: Christmas is about Jesus, and Christmas is about me.

Narrator: So there you have it. The word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is about revelation: It’s about Jesus revealing that God is our Father and that we belong to him. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is also about reconciliation. Jesus was reconciling God to man and man to God. And the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is about communion. Jesus taught us that just as he is one with us and one with the Father, so in him, we are also one with the Father.

Our hope is that knowing what Christmas is about – this Christmas will be for you…the best Christmas ever…

[End with a Scripture reading and a worship song.]

Suggested Scriptures and songs

  • Isaiah 7:14
  • Luke 1:26-33
  • Matthew 1:18-25
  • Isaiah 9:6-7
  • Luke 2:8-12
  • Luke 2:13-14
  • John 3:16-17
  • Here I Am to Worship
  • Joyful, Joyful We Adore You
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful
  • Go, Tell it on the Mountain
  • Joy to the World
  • O Holy Night
  • Silent Night

Sermon for December 26, 2021 — First Sunday after Christmas

Speaking Of Life 4005 | Just Like Mom Used to Make

Have you ever experienced having a loved one bring you gifts or goodies that remind you of the warmth of home? Comparably, the prophet Samuel was often visited by his loving mother, bringing him a new robe throughout the years while working in God’s temple. Just like our loving moms, let us be reminded to take care of and love one another unconditionally that others may see the love of Christ through our actions.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 4005 | Just Like Mom Used to Make
Greg Williams

One of the sweet memories I have of my college days was the care packages I got from my mom. I would show up at the student mail counter and get that much-anticipated box filled with fudge, no-bake cookies, a loving note, new socks, and a surprise or two—just a touch of home. As a young college student, I didn’t realize how important this kind of interaction was. My mom was connecting me with my family and the story I came from—the disorienting experience of young adulthood was relieved for a moment. This is who you are—not just words, but they gave me a taste and feel of home. 

We can only guess, but the young prophet Samuel may have felt the same way. The high priest’s sons, who were supposed to be learning the arts of the temple, were distracted and sin-addicted. Samuel, at a young age, was already doing some of the priest work, as we see in this brief touching account of his mother’s visit: 

Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.
1 Samuel 2:18-19
 (ESV)

Samuel’s mother Hannah had prayed for a child for decades. When Samuel was finally born, she dedicated him to the Lord—to live at the temple and assist the priest. She visited once a year and brought him the “care package” of a new robe she made for him every year. She only saw him once and she had to guess carefully how much he grew that year. 

Hannah joins the great tradition of biblical women—powerful elegant ladies who are vital to the narrative of the gospel. In the ancient world where women were often disregarded, these heroic females stood out as examples of courage and rugged love.

Hannah knows that her boy is destined for great things and serves in the very presence of God, but she also knows he’s her boy. That he needs the touch of home and that God only calls real-life, momma-needing people to bring in his kingdom. 

Has God ever used someone—be it your mother or someone else—to remind you of your frailty, but also to remind you that he cares about you? That he cares about your need for comfort and your need for love? Does he use those who can see right through us and yet still love us, like mom does? This “for-us,” unconditional Godly love is what our amazing Triune God wants for us all, and finds unique ways to provide—often through unexpected care packages.

May you experience the care packages he sends your way.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 148:1-14 · 1 Samuel 2:28-30 · Colossians 3:12-17 · Luke 2:41-52

The theme for this first Sunday after Christmas week is a little child shall lead them. The call to worship Psalm shows all of creation—from the young to the old—singing out in praise. 1 Samuel 2 gives us the image of the child Samuel serving in the temple—a foreshadow of Jesus himself. Colossians 3 tells us how to clothe ourselves in love and gratitude as the chosen—the children—of God. Our sermon is from Luke 2 which tells us about our savior experiencing that most human of interludes: Being a teenager.

Jesus the Disruptor

Luke 2:41-52 ESV

Read or have someone read Luke 2:41-52 ESV

Disruptor is a fairly new term that has become part of daily use, especially in business. A disruptor is someone who brings an innovation that upsets a whole industry. This person invents something or tightens a process that means that the old system is broken for good.

In developed nations, the farming industry was changed forever by the invention of the combine. The transportation industry was forever disrupted by a young American named Henry Ford. The retail industry was irreparably disrupted by Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com.

Disruption is everywhere in the internet age. Processes and technology go obsolete almost overnight. Young adults become billionaires in a matter of months while millions are lost in investments in products that suddenly go stale. These are volatile times.

I suggest to you that Jesus is the greatest disruptor. Every system and process that tries to completely encapsulate him falls apart. He broke the systems of religion that came before him. He broke the laws of physics and science as they were known or perceived. He broke the ancient code of offense and revenge.

Today’s story of Jesus in the temple is the first story of Jesus’ disruption. His birth was disruptive, no doubt, but here he is doing that disruption himself as a young man making his own choices.

Today, let’s look at three ways Jesus disrupts, and what that means to us:

  • Jesus disrupts expectations
  • Jesus disrupts the universe
  • Jesus disrupts us

Jesus disrupts expectations

The odd thing about the start of this disruptive scene is that the curtain opens on a routine:

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. (Luke 2:41-42 ESV)

This is a usual thing for them, to travel to the feast as the law commanded. Some of Jesus’ earthly memories were probably being jostled on the back of a donkey as they headed south to Jerusalem.

One of the important details here is that Jesus’ entire family went, and they went for the entire feast. The command specified that only men needed to go to the festivals, and there’s indication that they only had to go for the first couple of days rather than the whole week. Jesus’ whole family went for the whole time, indicating they were observant, faith-centered people. Coming to the temple would have been a thrilling moment for the young Jesus.

At the end of the feast, Jesus stayed behind when his family left. The situation was probably a caravan of some kind, perhaps with some of the  kids walking in one large group and younger kids with their parents in the other group. Mary and Joseph could only surmise that Jesus was with other family members. Another plausible explanation is that men and women traveled in different groups. Children traveled with their mothers until age 12, with their fathers after age 12. Since Jesus was in between, they each assumed he was with the other.

There’s no reason here to twist this story a bit and say that Jesus’ parents were somehow ignorant or careless, or that Jesus needed to “teach” them something different, hapless as they were. They were very ordinary parents in that situation and time.

It’s hard to know what was on Mary’s mind. She knew Jesus’ destiny was like no one else, but she had an unclear picture on what that would be. She did not have the New Testament to look up what would happen next—she was living the story. She knew that her boy, who had just reached twelve—the threshold of manhood in that culture—was Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

She and Joseph looked in every doorway and back alley for two agonizing days. They finally found Jesus in the place they had been, the temple, the most prominent landmark in the city. Think about the context here. Though Jesus is on the threshold of manhood, he is also still a child, yet he’s talking with the teachers of Israel. This isn’t just a precocious kid sitting at the big kids’ table. This is a seventh-grader walking onto the senate floor; this is a tween standing in the House of Lords; a cracking voice addressing the United Nations. In that culture at that time, Jesus was hanging out in the nerve center talking with the proverbial “smartest guys in the room.”

Mary addresses him like a mother:

“Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” (Luke2:48 ESV)

The word she uses to address him as Luke writes it—“teknon” in Greek—can convey either affection or accusation. My guess is a little of both of these meanings were in play at the time! I’m so relieved you’re safe! What were you thinking?!

You wonder, too, if Mary is reminding herself and him that he is still a child, that she wants him to be a child, perhaps to hold back for a moment Simeon’s prophesy:

“…this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke2:34-35 ESV)

Jesus’ answer is telling:

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke2:49 ESV)

Jesus responds as an adult. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, you should have known where I would be.

“My Father’s house,” he says. In the culture at that time, he didn’t just mean that he was in God’s house, like in church. He means that he is under his Father’s house, meaning that he is under God’s authority—specifically that he is no longer under theirs. Here the sword begins to pierce Mary’s heart; her son has, in some senses, left her home.

Jesus disrupts the universe

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:26-27 ESV)

This is a verse from a different part of Luke that ties back into today’s text. In this verse, two friends are walking on a dusty road away from Jerusalem where Jesus was killed three days previously. They are joined by a stranger, whose face they don’t recognize, and they tell him what’s on their minds.

The joke is that the “stranger” is Jesus himself walking with them and listening as they lament what has happened to their hoped-for Savior. This had all happened three days ago.

Three days. Here’s the motif that Luke uses to tie these two episodes together. Jesus “lost” in Jerusalem for three days; Jesus “lost” after his death for three days. Luke draws the parallel tighter by using the same key word:

 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer… (Luke 24:26 ESV)

Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49 ESV)

Jesus disrupts his family system by walking away from one father’s house to his Father’s house for three days; Jesus disrupts the universe—the ancient laws of decay and death—by walking away from death itself three days later. He has disrupted not just cultural expectations, but all of what we know of reality. He is under his Father’s authority, not ours, which means he answers to different laws, even the laws of time and space.

Early American president Thomas Jefferson famously revised the Gospels into what is often called the “Jefferson Bible.” Using what he believed to be the enlightened thinking of the modern age, he removed the miracles, and all mentions of the supernatural out of the Gospels and cut-and-pasted the leftovers back together.

The result is a story that makes no sense. Jesus becomes famous for almost no reason. He garners followers and attention out of nowhere. He becomes yet another folk hero who dies at the hands of an occupying government. The Christian movement, then, becomes very difficult to explain. In that society, these “messiahs” came and went—political leaders with fiery language and big promises disappeared from history right away. But Jesus is the Messiah who still has followers centuries later.

The Jefferson Bible—or any story that excludes the miraculous from Jesus’ life—becomes like an audiobook set on “shuffle” mode. The transitions and arch of the story make no sense; the scenes jump in and out of each other for no reason. The narrative of Jesus as we have it doesn’t fit together without the fact that he disrupted the universe.

Three days. Three days Jesus was lost to Mary. Three days Jesus was lost to the world. Although it might be more palatable and perhaps easier to hold onto in the modern world that Jesus was nothing more than a great teacher, it makes confetti of that view and leaves us with vague nonsense. To hold onto Jesus the disruptor means to hold onto the complicated fact that he disrupted everything, even life and death.

Jesus disrupts us

Jesus disrupted expectations—he disrupted his family system and broke all the rules walking into the center of the temple as a teenager. Jesus disrupted the universe—breaking the ancient laws of sin and death.

And now, Jesus disrupts us. Jesus has a way of leading us into situations and relationships where we’re outstripped by our challenges.

The old saying goes that God never gives you more than you can handle. But the more accurate version is that God won’t give you anything you and he can’t handle together. Right when we get too comfortable, maybe a little full of ourselves or we start depending on ourselves, Jesus reminds us that we need him.

The writer John Eldredge puts it well:

Being in partnership with God, though, often feels much more like being Mel Gibson’s sidekick in the movie Lethal Weapon. In his determination to deal with the bad guy, he leaps from seventh-story balconies into swimming pools, surprised that we would have any hesitation in following after him…we find ourselves caught up in an adventure of heroic proportions with a God who both seduces us with his boldness and energy, and repels us with his willingness to place us in mortal danger (John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance)

The Lord we follow is the same one who left his family caravan to address the most important teachers in his culture as a near-teenager. He’s also the one who rearranged the furniture at the temple one memorable morning. He’s also the one who made Pontius Pilate wait in silence for an answer.

He will stretch you further than you think you can go. He will give your love more depth than you can fathom. He will focus your eyes on beauty you’ve never seen, and give you strength you’ve never felt.

He will disrupt you.

And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51 ESV)

This is the second time we hear this sentence. The first was in verse 19, just after the shepherds come to worship at the manger. Mary was plenty disrupted at that time and was able to sit down and contemplate these things in gratitude.

Twelve years have passed. Here we find Jesus as a kid raised at his earthly father’s knee. This time Jesus himself disrupts the picture, breaks the frame right off it.

Even after this stress, even after realizing that everything about Jesus is indeed true and frightening, Mary still sits down to treasure these things in gratitude. She is disrupted and she is thankful.

We follow Christ not because he is safe, not because he’s predictable, but because his dangerous path leads to life! It leads to the joy that we can treasure in our hearts. It leads to the heart of reality itself.

Is Jesus disrupting you today? Is he calling you out of your comfort zone? Is he calling you out to the edge? Meet him there; he will light the way.