Sermon for January 27, 2019

Scripture Readings
Neh. 8:1-10 • Ps. 19:1-14 • 1 Cor. 12:12-31a • Luke 4:14-21

Jesus’ Inaugural Address

(Luke 4:14-30)

Note to preacher: For the introduction you might talk about inaugural addresses you’ve heard---ones with hollow promises concerning what the speaker says they will do, all the while knowing they won’t or can’t.

During the season of Epiphany, most of our Gospel readings focus on the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, showing him taking aim at the idols people worship. Much like explosions purposefully set to demolish a building, Jesus demolishes our idolatrous temple.

Two weeks ago, in Luke 3, we heard John the Baptist calling the people of God, the Jews, to repentance—not just repenting of idolatrous practices, but the idolatrous content of their hearts. BOOM! Our self-righteousness is blown to bits.

Then last week, in John 2, we saw Jesus demolish expectations by his focus on relationships when he turned water into wine at a wedding party. BOOM! Our self-centered agendas come tumbling down.

Today, the demolition continues. In our reading in Luke 4, Jesus takes aim at the idolatry of exclusivity. He tears down our human tendency to be judgmental—to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” He topples our understanding of who the deplorables are as compared to God’s favorites. BOOM! Any idea of “us versus them” comes tumbling down.

Some context will help here: The Jews of that time believed God would deliver them by destroying their enemies—particularly the Roman occupiers. Based on their reading of the Old Testament, they saw this deliverance as largely physical and political, with Israel being exalted among the nations as God’s favorite. From that perspective, the rest of the world could, quite literally, be damned.

In a rather shocking way, Jesus comes into town, railing against this attitude of exclusivity. Let’s look at Luke, chapter 4:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. (Luke 4:14-15)

Jesus Teaches in the Synagogues
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus had just gone through a time of severe testing—a time when he was emptied so that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit as he begins his public ministry. Now, in the power of the Spirit he comes teaching:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Jesus was doing what visiting rabbis were invited to do: read from the scroll of Scripture, then offer  a short sermon as commentary. But something is different here. The congregation is aware of this Jesus guy, and what he has been up to. Word had spread far and wide about his teaching. And here they were, waiting for him to say something clever.

You can imagine their shock when, after reading a passage from Isaiah, Jesus then declares, “It’s about me—what Isaiah prophesied is now happening!”

BOOM! Another support beam blown up. Jesus was reading about God’s great deliverance of Israel—the deliverance they are all waiting for. Yet, he makes it sound dramatically different from anything they thought it would be.

Jesus is talking about those who are the undesirable, those who are broken and on the margins: the blind, the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed. Luke’s Gospel often talks about Jesus’ special love for the poor and downtrodden. But the definition of “poor” here is wider than that. It describes those who are of low social status in that society: women, children, disabled people, the blind. Here Jesus is stating that the vision of God’s kingdom starts with and always includes such people.

One commentator refers to Jesus’ declaration here as his “inaugural address.” Newly elected presidents, in their inaugural addresses set forth their vision for what their time in office will look like. Rather than talking about specific plans, they tend to focus on the tone and themes for their time in office. They might emphasize national unity, economic recovery, or foreign relations. But Jesus begins his public ministry by demolishing the people’s expectations of what the kingdom of God will be like. The kingdom is not for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken. That’s the bombshell here: Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to save the righteous, but sinners. He didn’t come to rain fire down on the bad guys, but to show the good guys and the bad guys that they need a Savior.

Filmmaker Mel Gibson gave himself a cameo in his movie The Passion of Christ. Rather than taking a large, heroic part, he portrayed the executioner who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. Those who know they would have been the one holding the hammer are on their way to the kingdom. But it’s easy to miss this mindset in the Western world where Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries.

But times are changing. Though most of us remember the time when almost everyone went to church and the world stopped on Sunday, younger generations are growing up in a world where a Christian worldview is a minority position. Can we Christians approach other viewpoints with humility rather than with fear and bitterness? Can we learn to be thankful that we know Christ rather than condemning those who don’t? The saved hostage doesn’t judge those who are still imprisoned—he aches for them, prays for them, is grateful every moment that he has been rescued. Let’s let that be our attitude.

Jesus’ strongest, critical words were for the most religious people—those who think they have it all together, and so are quite unpleasant to be around. In contrast, it can be joyful and freeing to hang with people who know they don’t have it all together—folks like recovering addicts who have looked in the face of complete loss, even death, and know that every blessing in their lives is an added, undeserved bonus. They live with a certain freedom, knowing what it’s like to lose everything, knowing that they are just as capable of evil as the so-called “bad guys.”

In his inaugural address, Jesus says he is proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In doing so, he is referencing what is addressed in the Old Testament book of Leviticus:

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. (Lev. 25:10-12)

In the year of jubilee, which occurred every 50 years, all property was to be returned to its original owners, and the land rested from being cultivated. Those who had become indentured servants due to poverty were set free. It was a year of liberation, return of property, rest and simplicity. The people were to live on what grew naturally, letting the land and the people rest. This would have been a simpler time. Wealth and competition would have been at a lull because everyone was living under the same restrictions.

Sadly, there is no record that the year of jubilee was ever kept. Yet here is Jesus proclaiming that it’s ultimate fulfillment has arrived. You see, the Sabbath day and Sabbath years pointed to the great Jubilee—the great and ultimate rest and deliverance for the people of God.

Last week in John chapter 2 we read about Jesus’ inaugural miracle—turning water into wine, the symbol and lubricant of partying. Now here in Luke 4 , Jesus gives his inaugural address, proclaiming the true Jubilee.

We are God’s people, you shall know us by our parties? By our feasting? No, Jesus is declaring that the people of God will be identified by simple joys, by starting over from ground zero. Over-complicated, hyperactive, sin-infested ways of “who owes what to whom” and “who offended whom” and “who’s winning and  who’s losing” need to be demolished, so that we can start from scratch.

The Jews in the synagogue that day were not thrilled by what Jesus declared, particularly when he, in not-so-veiled terms, went on to explain how God delivered other nations—gentile nations—instead of them:

There were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)

God cared about Naaman the Syrian—commander of Israel’s enemy? Jesus’ radical point is that the Jubilee is for everyone, for all nations. The release from oppression he declares is not just for Jews—it is release for ALL people from the most brutal tyrant of all: OURSELVES.

Incensed by Jesus’ declaration, the Jews took him to the edge of a nearby cliff, intending to kill him:

 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. (Luke 4:28-29)

Not long before this, Jesus had been atop the highest point of the Jerusalem temple (Luke 4:9-12), invited by the devil to throw himself down to prove his identity as the Son of God. Now Jesus stands atop a high cliff near Nazareth. At the temple, the devil twisted the words of Psalm 91 to try to tempt Jesus to show off. But Jesus refused. Now, due to his humble obedience to God, Jesus faces execution. But he is delivered, perhaps by angels:

[Jesus] walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:30)

Conclusion

As we ponder Jesus’ inaugural address, here are three takeaways:

  •  Jesus didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken. We would be the one holding the hammer and nails at Jesus’ crucifixion. He knows that—he’s always known it. Everything in life is extra, every blessing we have, a gift; so let’s be freshly grateful.
  • We as God’s people need to be gentle with those who don’t call themselves Christians. Jesus gives several examples here of God’s mercy shed on those who are “outsiders.” He had his strongest words for the religious establishment, for the US not the THEM. Let’s continue to tell truth in love, and be known for our welcoming and hospitality, for our feasting, instead of how well we withdraw from those who are not like us. Let’s pray for others, get into their lives, be living examples of Jubilee.
  • The year of Jubilee that Jesus declared has never ended. It is the year—the era in which we, through him, are released from sin, guilt and shame. Do you need that time, that Jubilee, in your life? Is there something you need to let go of? Some bitterness, some rage against someone, or against life itself? Let this be your year of Jubilee. Let this be the year when you claim God’s peace and love against all odds. Let this week be the start of you bringing Jubilee to someone close to you. Forgive, let go, love. This is what we do, and this is how we are known.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever watched a president’s inaugural address? In person? How do they compare with each other?
  • Throughout his ministry, and definitely in this passage, we see Jesus expanding the Israelites’ notion of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Here he mentions Gentiles—even Israel’s enemies—who received God’s favor (Luke 4:24-27). What does it mean to show God’s love to those on the outside or in the fringes of society? Why is that important in the kingdom of Christ?
  • Jesus refers to the Year of Jubilee practice in Israel, a year in which indentured servants were freed, land was returned to its original owners, and debts were cancelled. How can we practice this as a church community today? How can we practice “Jubilee” in our own lives by forgiving, giving grace, giving love to those who don’t “deserve” it?
  • Here as in other places, we see Jesus “breaking the rules” by interpreting a passage in a brand-new way. Can you think of any other examples in the Gospels of Jesus “breaking the rules”? What do these changes in the program tell us about Jesus? Has Jesus ever “broken the rules” in your life?
  • Jesus didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken and in need of him. What does it mean to live with this reality in mind? What does it mean not to trust in our own strength and street smarts, but instead in his gracious protection and provision? What does it mean to be in touch with our own brokenness—how does that change our approach to others and ourselves?
  • In Nehemiah 8:1-10, Ezra read from the Torah. What was the response of the people? How does it compare to when we hear God’s word read to us?
  • Read Psalm 19:1-14 and share what the words mean to you.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in terms of who’s in and who’s out. What is God saying to you in this passage? What does it mean in saying that the body is made of many members? To whom would Jesus say, “I have no need of you”?

Sermon for January 20, 2019

Scripture Readings
Isa. 62:1-5 • Ps. 36:5-10 • 1 Cor. 12:1-22 • John 2:1-22

The Woman and the Wine

John 2:1-11 (NRSV)

Introduction

Note to preacher: Brides and grooms often fear something going wrong on their wedding day. As an introduction to this sermon, you might share about your wedding day challenges.

It’s interesting that Jesus’ first miracle came at a wedding. It’s an event that brides and grooms carefully prepare for. Because family and friends share the occasion, the last thing the couple wants is to run out of food or drink. In our Gospel reading today in the book of John, we find a newly married couple running out of wine at the wedding reception. Jesus’ mom tells the servants to go to Jesus for help.

Jesus Turns Water Into Wine (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Why the third day?

John 2:1 says this first miracle occurred “on the third day.” Why say that? In the Bible, three-day periods point to acts of divine intervention. On the third day of creation dry ground appeared and the land produced “fruit”—seed-bearing plants and trees came forth. On the third day of his burial, Jesus was resurrected, providing firstfruits of a re-creation that will involve the entire cosmos (humans included). John is likely using this three-day motif to show that the miracle of changing water into wine is to be understood as a sign pointing to the truth that Jesus is none other than the Word of God—the one who spoke and the cosmos came into being. Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator and now the re-Creator.

Was Jesus mistreating his mother?

Given that understanding, we are left wondering, why would Jesus say to his mother on this important occasion, “Woman, why do you involve me?” (John 2:4a). Was Jesus condemning her? Putting her in her place? To think so would be tantamount to embracing the lie the devil whispered to Eve in the garden of Eden (and to all women since): “You are not valuable, not cherished, not loved.” Would the Son of God dishonor his mother that way? Certainly not. Instead, by this statement, Jesus was actually ascribing to his mother great worth.

“Christ and His Mother Studying Scripture”
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the Gospel of John, Mary is called “the mother of Jesus” never Mary. It doing so John seems to be emphasizing the fat that this particular mother is the one who gave birth to the Word of God come in human flesh (John 1:14). However, here in John 2, then later at the cross, Jesus calls his mother “woman.” In light of the connection of “on the third day” to the third day of creation, we see that John means to connect “the seed” mentioned in Genesis 3 with “the woman” who bears the Seed (Jesus) who saves the world. Note in Genesis 3 where God says this to Satan:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)

Seeing these various connections, we understand that Jesus is telling Mary that she is the fulfillment of prophecy. She is THE WOMAN whose Seed is the Savior of the world. Wanting others to understand this, Jesus exalts Mary, thus connecting her identity with his. This may explain Mary’s response to Jesus: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5b). Mary did not respond as one who had been reprimanded, but as one no longer concerned about the problem. Understanding who Jesus is, Mary places her trust in him and in his power to solve the problem in “whatever” way he deems appropriate.

When we see our identity wrapped up in Jesus, we too are freed from the need to try to fix all the wrongs and problems that come our way. How easy it is for us to take on problems that do not belong to us! Conversely, when our identity is bound up in something that is broken, we exhaust ourselves trying to fix the problems on our own. Such attempts often lead to toxic relational entanglements, and enmeshed modes of relating.

When our identity is firmly grounded in Jesus, and in him alone, we are able to trust him in all situations without fearing any loss of value to who we truly are.

Conclusion

Jesus didn’t stop with merely solving the wine shortage problem. Through this miracle he revealed (manifested) his glory. That’s why this story is read during the season of Epiphany (the word “epiphany” means “unveiling”). In this event at Cana we have the unveiling of who Jesus is, along with the unveiling of who we are in him. In his story we find several unveilings:

Note to preacher: before going through the list below, you might ask the congregation what unveilings they see, or give each item on the list to a small group to discuss before continuing the sermon.
  • God includes us. Our triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) has existed for all eternity in a relationship of sharing. God created us to be adopted into that triune communion. Jesus could have just made wine appear. Instead he involved the servants.
  • God is working in us to bring the best out of us. Our brokenness and emptiness do not prevent Jesus from producing the best fruits—the “finest wine”—that he intends for us to be.
  • God doesn’t hold back. 180 gallons of wine is more than enough for a wedding celebration. In Jesus, God shares himself with us in abundance. We will never be lacking.
  • Jesus honors relationships. Jesus replaces our empty works of religion with an abundant life of relationship. The wedding celebration was saved, as was the family’s reputation.
  • Jesus works with what we have and where we are. He doesn’t need super-charged holy water to work his miracle. Dirty cleaning water will do. We can give him, up to the brim, what we have; who we are.
  • Jesus shares his work with his servants. When we participate with him we come to know him, and his Father’s plan and purposes for us even more.
  • Since Jesus is the one working we can boldly participate in what he is up to. Mary and the servants were willing to do “whatever” Jesus asked.

As we participate in faith with what Jesus is doing with us and through us, we will grow in our trust and knowledge of him. As Jesus continues to reveal to us who the Father is, like the disciples we too can “believe in him.” What does that belief look like for you today? What has Jesus invited you to participate in (corporately; personally)? What will you respond?


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Do you remember all the preparations that went into your wedding or the wedding of a friend? What went wrong?
  • How might hearing Jesus speaking words of honor rather than dishonor shape our response to him?
  • How does doing “whatever” Jesus tells us shape our experience of following him?
  • Can you think of other revelations that can be seen in the details of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine?
  • After this experience, how do you think the disciples may feel the next time someone’s honor is on the line?
  • Read Isaiah 62:1-5 and discuss how it relates to this passage in John.
  • Psalm 36:5-10 talks about the steadfast love of God. How has God shown this love to you recently?
  • 1 Corinthians 12 talks about spiritual gifts – just one of the ways God honors his relationship with you. What gift do you have? What gift do you see in others in this group?

Sermon for January 13, 2019

Scripture Readings
Isa. 43:1-7 • Ps. 29:1-11 • Acts 8:14-17 • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Jesus, the Demolition Artist

(Luke 3:7-17, 21-22)

Note to preacher: For the introduction you may want to show a video of a building being demolished through an explosion.

Demolition—it’s the necessary job of removing the old so that the new can come in. It involves pulling, crushing (and sometimes exploding), then removing, so that old material can make way for the new.

Demolition, particularly when it involves the use of explosives, is a delicate art. You’ve likely seen buildings demolished using explosives. It looks like an ordinary building on an ordinary day, when somewhere, deep inside the structure, there’s a jerk, then a shudder, then another, like the building is having a seizure. Then one corner of it lunges, starts to fall, and in just a moment there is a murky cloud where the building used to be. Demolition experts call this “progressive collapse.” Skillfully handled, it can happen without breaking windows in nearby structures.

A progressive collapse is the safest, fastest, and most cost-effective way to remove an old building. The use of a wrecking ball or bulldozers and other kinds of machinery is time-wasting and potentially more dangerous. The experts managing a progressive collapse use math and physics as they study the structure. They locate the support beams – those that hold the most weight – and that is where they lay the explosives. Then an ordinary button on an ordinary computer is pushed, resulting in millions of tons of concrete, glass and steel becoming a pile of dust.

What has this to do with us today? Last Sunday we entered the season of Epiphany by looking at Matthew’s story of the wise men visiting Jesus. As Epiphany proceeds, we will be reflecting on the manifestations of Jesus during his ministry, spanning the time it first began until his revelation on the mountain of transfiguration.

Reading Jesus’ words in the Gospels, it’s clear that the message he proclaimed was not about comfort or about maintaining the status quo. So radical and unsettling was his teaching, that we might call Jesus a “demolition artist.” In that regard, judgment is a common topic in his teaching as he calls for radical change. Jesus overthrows the old paradigms and ways of understanding—sometimes adjusting them, but most often demolishing them.

The Jews Jesus was addressing had lived for centuries with the Law of Moses—the ethics and practices that marked them out as God’s people. A culture had grown up around this code—sometimes out of faithfulness, sometimes out of sheer routine, sometimes out of having a sense of being an exclusive community that felt that they were better than the nations around them. Based on their reading of Scripture, they had developed a certain picture of what God’s deliverance of them as a nation would look like. They had “figured out” what God’s kingdom would be like—especially what God’s king, their Messiah, would look like when he arrived. As God’s people, they understood that they would be the privileged heirs of a physical kingdom, and would rule over other nations—the nations that had persecuted and even enslaved them throughout their history.

What they expected of the Messiah was one of the first support beams that Jesus put the dynamite under. Another was the expectation of what the kingdom would look like. He blew these expectations apart with small charges we call parables—particularly ones known as the kingdom parables, that tell what the kingdom of God is and where it is.

Jesus declared the kingdom of God to be like a story where a despised Samaritan is the hero—BOOM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the master who pays his servants the same no matter how long they’ve worked—BAM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the younger brother who repents and comes home, not the older brother who stayed loyal and kept all the father’s rules—KABOOM! Another expectation Jesus demolished is that God’s kingdom will come to the rich, powerful and perfect. To do so he picks a group of thieves and roughnecks to be his inner circle—BOOM!

Do you see how these parables are similar to how Jesus came into our lives? He turned our tables, shook our foundations, disrupted our neat little plans and our expectations of how things are “supposed to” go. He demolished what we had built and expected, so that he could build our lives in accordance with his plan.

We should not think that the Jews portrayed in the Gospels were uniquely sinful or full of pride. Most were devoted to God. But there is another side of the story that involved some of the religious leaders of the Jews.

There were the Sadducees who traded obedience to God for political jobs, making nice with the Romans. Some Christians in our day do likewise—compromising Christian ethics and doctrine in order to be comfortable in society and more acceptable to non-Christians.

Then there were the Jewish zealots –fundamentalists – some of whom were quite violent. Some Christians in our day are like that—they blow up abortion clinics and beat up gay people.

Then there were the Essenes—the Jewish mystics who ran away from the world and hid in caves, waiting for the end of days. Some Christians in our day are like that—you might find them in groups that shy away from engaging society at all.

But most of the Jews in Jesus’ day were strong, middle-of-the-road worshippers of the God of Israel who held onto the faith, even its more difficult truths, remaining a part of their Jewish culture. These were good citizens, solid people, the kind you wanted your daughters to marry. Included in that group were the Pharisees. Though we often view them as self-righteous bigots, the reality is that they were more faithful and observant than any of us will probably ever be. Nevertheless, Jesus reserved some of his strongest warnings for them. It’s as if Jesus gave the toughest coaching to the star athletes. His most devastating words were spoken to the best and brightest.

Jesus did this to the Pharisees to show us that ALL of us need demolition and rebuilding. ALL of us need Jesus’ explosive charges laid at the pillars and supports we’ve built up for ourselves—no matter how well-intentioned they might be.

So, Jesus the demolition artist, comes at the expectations and culture that had built up around the Law and the Prophets, and blows out the supports, piece by piece, until the whole edifice topples under its own weight. True construction, true growth and change, can’t come until the old is demolished.

Here’s a question for each us: Has Jesus ever blown out our supports? Has he ever blown up old things—old habits, old sins, self-protection—the things we’ve relied on instead of him? Has the demolition artist ever gone to work on you? He’s certainly gone to work on me!

Note to preacher: this would be a good place to share an example from your life.

There are times I thought I had it figured out—times I thought I knew how things would go, what shape my life would take, what would happen next. But Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about my thoughts on the matter. He sent in the demolition crew, attached an explosive charge to the foundations of my pride and presumption and BOOM! As the structures of pride, ignorance and even arrogance fell, and the smoke cleared, I could get a glimpse of God’s amazing plan for my life. And what a plan is was, and is!

Let’s go now to our reading in Luke. To get the context, we’ll start in verse 7 where John the Baptist addresses the crowd:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7-14)

“St. John Baptizes the People” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

If Jesus is the demolition artist, then John the Baptist is his wiry, tough, fast-moving assistant—the one who finds the supports in the structure and marks them with chalk so Jesus can come along with the heavy artillery.

John is addressing everyday people who feel spiritual hunger and thirst, people whose hearts are in some measure tenderized by God. John points out their everyday sins—the ones most everyone commits. He points out that their surplus of food and goods belong to the poor. Sure John, but doesn’t everyone keep a little extra for themselves? John then points out that the “accepted” evils of the tax collector culture, skimming a little off the top, is also 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. He is pointing out that Jesus is here to take sin out by the roots, not to merely remodel the building. Instead, Jesus will demolish it and start over from the ground up.

In our culture (even among Christians) there are “acceptable sins.” How often do we look at what the Bible lists as sin and respond with a helpless shrug—”that’s just the way things are.” Plenty of good moral people find themselves in such circumstances. John is showing us that we don’t need a slight modification of our behavior or a mere refreshing of our perspective. What we need is a new heart and soul. We need Jesus the demolition artist to take down our old concepts of righteousness and goodness and build the real thing in its place.

Luke continues:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15-17)

Here John uses a couple of metaphors to describe what’s going on with Jesus. There is a belief among the Jews at the time that as descendants of Abraham they will be excluded from God’s judgment. But that is not the case. Everyone (Jews and Christians included) need a full change of heart. They need the re-creation that is theirs in Jesus, the Messiah. To make that point, John uses the illustration of a winnowing fork and a threshing floor.

In Jesus’ day, you had to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat was the kernel that could be made into bread and the chaff was the useless shell that was thrown away or burned. The threshing floor was a flat area of packed dirt where the wheat was laid out to dry. These floors were often on top of hills so the wind could blow across, blowing away the useless chaff.

When the wheat had dried, the farmer would come along with a winnowing fork or fan and throw the wheat up in the air. The remaining chaff would then blow away and the kernels of wheat would fall to the ground. This analogy here is about separating out what is useful from what is useless—the good from the bad.

For us, Jesus is the separator, the judge, the demolition artist. He has the winnowing fork in hand. I know—he’s thrown me in the air before to knock the chaff off. This was usually painful, but God used those experiences to transform me—to pull away the chaff and let the wheat—the good stuff—remain. Though painful, most of those experiences were not  dramatic—just everyday stuff. Indeed, everyday life is typically the threshing floor where Jesus meets us. I hope someday to get to the place where I recognize him in those moments as they are occurring, though even when I can’t see them, his threshing still accomplishes its goal—to cleanse and heal me.

Luke’s account continues:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus, the thresher, the demolition artist, comes to John for baptism. Here’s another expectation held by many of the Jews of that day being demolished. After all, the Messiah they longed for was supposed to be a conqueror, an other-worldly figure of great strength. But here comes Jesus, asking to be baptized in a river with everyone else.

Though he did not need to repent or be cleansed, by being baptized Jesus aligned himself with all humanity—joining us in our greatest need. Everything we endure, he endured; all we fail at, he completed. He was baptized with us and for us so that we could be baptized into him. And that represents the greatest demolition of all.

Jesus took all our sins upon himself, he assumed our fallen nature, and bearing that, he destroyed sin and brought us healing. Along the way, he endured all our temptations, yet never sinned. By going to the cross he destroyed the power of death. He is, indeed, the great demolition artist and everything he destroys is so he can build it up again in him. He became one with us in order to transform us, making us his beloved brothers and sisters. Through his representative, substitute humanity, we are adopted as God’s beloved children, who, with Jesus, call God Abba, our Father.

Jesus came, lived, suffered, died and rose again to demolish all that is wrong in us and to make of us a new creation. Through the word of God and the indwelling Spirit he shows us who he really is, and thus who we really are, in him.

Conclusion

Here are some concluding thoughts about what we’ve learned about Jesus today and what that means for each of us.

Jesus is the demolition artist

Though he doesn’t use the term, C.S. Lewis talks beautifully about Jesus as the demolition artist, who says to us:

I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. … Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours. (Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 4)

Jesus is the threshing artist

What if we saw the pain and irritation in our lives as tools in Jesus’ hands to break away that chaff so that the best in us (who we are in Christ) remains? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove the chaff, no matter the cost, I want to be all I can be in you.”

Jesus is sometimes not the Messiah we want

Jesus spent a lot of time correcting false expectations of what the Messiah would look like. Where are our expectations? Do we want Jesus to be our comfort blanket (when we see in Scripture that he is the judge and thresher)? Do we want Jesus to be the conqueror, annihilating all our enemies (when we see in Scripture that he hung out with sinners)? Do we want Jesus to always be on our side, justifying our causes (when we see in Scripture that he had the sharpest rebuke for the most “righteous” of people)? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove all my false expectations about who you are and let me see you.”

During the week ahead, I invite you to pray these prayers:

  • Lord, help me fully surrender.
  • Lord, remove the chaff.
  • Lord, remove my false expectations.
  • Lord, let me see you and what you are doing.
Note to preacher: you might end by praying these prayers on behalf of the congregation.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever witnessed the demolition of a building in person? What was it like?
  • Has Jesus ever “demolished” your expectations of him in your life? Has Jesus ever “demolished” sins, selfish attitudes, life-draining habits in your life that you didn’t even know were sins at the time? How has he rebuilt you?
  • In Luke 3:7-14, John takes aim at some of the “acceptable” sins in their society—tax-collectors skimming of the top, soldiers extorting people, not giving to the poor. What are some of the “acceptable” sins in our lives and our society that need to go? How can we remain aware of these things when the temptation is to always “let it slide”?
  • John uses the metaphor of Jesus on the threshing floor, removing the useless chaff from the precious grain. What if we reframed the stress and irritation in our lives to see it as the chaff being removed? To see these trials as Jesus removing the old, the useless, so that only the best remains? How would that change our daily lives?
  • The book of Hebrews says we have a high priest who sympathizes with our frail human existence. What does it mean that Jesus has gone before us through all these things—that he has walked before us, and still walks with us, through every trial we face? How does that change our perspective or attitude?
  • Isaiah 43:1-17 talks about the various trials we have. Who is always the redeemer? How has he redeemed you through a trial?
  • Discuss Psalm 29:1-11. Is there anything this God can’t and won’t demolish for you?
  • Acts 8:14-17 talks about receiving the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit in you help you see the things that need to be demolished?

Sermon for January 6, 2019 (Epiphany)

Note: January 6, the day of Epiphany, begins a season in the Church calendar also called Epiphany (or Epiphany Season). For a Surprising God article explaining its meaning, click here.
Scripture Readings
Isa. 60:1-6 • Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14 • Eph. 3:1-12 • Matt. 2:1-12

A Light to Follow

(Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV)

Note to preacher: As an introduction, you might show the Visual Bible video enactment of the Magi's visit as recorded in Matthew's Gospel. To find it online, click here (and continue to 10:05).

You’ve no doubt heard the story of the three wise men, the Magi, come from the East to visit the newborn Jesus. Some of the ways the story is traditionally told are inaccurate. For example, the Bible does not say how many Magi there were, though it mentions three gifts they brought. Neither does the Bible say anything about these men, except that they were wise and came from the East. It does say they were following a star. As a result, some speculate they were astronomers or astrologers. Others say they were kings. These details are not important, because the story in Matthew is not really about the Magi and their identity, it’s about Jesus and his identity.

The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew’s story of the Magi is traditionally told today, the first Sunday in the season called Epiphany. In the annual worship calendar, presented in the Revised Common Lectionary, Epiphany is both a day (January 6 each year) and a season that begins January 6 (following the 12 days of Christmas) and continues to the first Sunday in Lent (March 10 this year).

The word “epiphany” means “revelation” or “manifestation.” Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus is about the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentile world. In this and other stories from the Gospels read during the season of Epiphany, we are reminded of the great truth concerning Jesus’ true identity, which then points to the revelation of God’s true nature. We also are reminded of who we are, in Christ.

It is appropriate that our first story for Epiphany, the story of the Magi, takes place, traditionally, at night. What has been hidden to our sight is now coming to light:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matt. 2:1-2, NRSV)

Note that this event takes place “in the time of King Herod” and also after Jesus had come. The stories of our own lives also fall under this tension of overlapping times. We live “in this present evil time” (under our own “Herods,” if you will) and at the same time, the time after Jesus has come and inaugurated the kingdom of God. This living “between-the-times” presents a tension that we experience as we follow Jesus in this present age. It is thus not surprising that we find ourselves, like the wise men, with many questions.

The questions being asked by the Magi focus on the when and where of Jesus. Our questions typically concern how and why. The apparent simultaneous reign of two kings in the same region doesn’t always give clear answers. But answering the question as to which of these kings is worthy of our worship will ultimately be found in the answer to the who question: Who is the one the wise men came to see? Matthew gives us a bit of foreshadowing in Herod’s response after hearing of Jesus’ birth:

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (Matt. 2:3-4, NRSV)

Herod, out of fear, gathers the chief priests and scribes to find a way to get rid of this upstart king. The kings of this world, who want to protect their control and power, are always fearful of “rising stars.” (We see this evil alignment developing again, when years later the chief priests and scribes conspire to kill Jesus.)

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Matt. 2:5-6, NRSV)

Herod, hiding behind false humility, calculates how to get rid of this newborn king. In doing so, he inadvertently provides to the Magi a hearing of the Jewish scriptures. In case we think this story tells us that all roads lead to Jesus, these Gentile travelers do not find Jesus until after a hearing of the words “written by the prophet.” It is only after that hearing that they find the answer to Jesus’ location. God will walk down any road we are on, and he can get our attention using things like astrology, mythology, science or nature, but in the end, he brings us to know him through his word.

That understanding brings us to an epiphany from our story: God calls everyone to himself. He did not choose the Jews to exclude the rest of the nations. He chose them as a way to include the whole world.

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matt. 2:9-10, NRSV)

The appearance of the Magi signals that all are welcome in Jesus’ kingdom. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the star they followed “stopped” and they “were overwhelmed with joy.” In our search for Jesus, sooner or later the signs that point to him are replaced with the joy that he is near. Joy becomes our new guide, leading us to enter his home where we see Jesus.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt. 2:11, NRSV)

When the Magi enter the house, they not only see Jesus, but see him “with Mary his mother.” This is another epiphany: God is a God of relationship. Jesus doesn’t drop out of the sky like Thor or an alien invader. He comes to us in relationship, where our identity is wrapped up in who we are with him. It is in this relational context that true worship takes place. The wise men don’t worship outside the stable. No matter how dirty it may be inside, worship takes place alongside brothers and sisters who come to “pay homage,” sharing all they have with Jesus.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matt. 2:12, NRSV)

Matthew’s story ends with the Magi “warned in a dream” to not return to Herod. Instead they head directly to their home country. Up to this point they have done everything Herod told them to do. But after meeting Jesus, they now follow a new king, who is ushering in a new kingdom. Matthew tells us, “They left for their own country by another road.”

The question they haven’t asked has been answered. Who is this new king? He is King of kings and Lord of lords—the Lord God himself, who has humbled himself so as to exalt us in relationship with him. Like the wise men, this revelation brings forth repentance. We turn our ears from the rulers of this age and set our sights on following Jesus. Home is now found down a different road.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • This is a story about the Magi who came from the East. What are some of the myths of this story that might get in the way of what their visit is really about?
  • What kind of questions do we wrestle with as we live in the tension between the present evil time and knowing that Jesus has already arrived with his kingdom?
  • How might we participate with Jesus meeting people on their journey while bringing them to know him face-to-face? What role does Scripture play in sharing Jesus?
  • Do you see other epiphanies in the story of the Magi?
  • What do the details of worship seen in the story tell us about our worship of God?
  • Read Isaiah 60:1-5 and discuss how it relates to the story of the Magi.
  • Do you see a correlation between Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 and the story of the Magi? Discuss what it meant for these wise men to come to Jesus.
  • Read Ephesians 3:1-12 where Paul shares that he was called to bring light to the Gentiles, helping them understand they are included. Discuss how the story of the Magi also makes this clear.

Sermon for Dec. 30, 2018

Scripture readings for today:
1 Sam. 2:18-20, 26 • Ps. 148 • Col. 3:12-17 • Luke 2:41-52

The Most Boring Story in the Gospels

(Luke 2:41-51)

Introduction

Note to preacher: You may want to begin this sermon with an anecdote telling about a time you got lost as a child, or a time you thought you lost your child or grandchild. Share your sense of panic and relief.

It’s part of life—sometimes kids get lost. Seeing something glittery, or hearing a familiar song, they wander off. Maybe you got lost when you were a kid—it’s a terrible feeling when you realize you don’t know where you are; when surroundings and faces look strange to you. It’s like a scary dream. But when it’s one of your kids who is lost, the scary dream becomes a terrible nightmare. You run around like crazy, looking at all the kids of a certain size, but none have the familiar features. Not one looks back up at you and says, “Hey dad” or “Hey mom.”

Having my own kids, I don’t like to think about such a thing. I’ve often looked around frantically when I lost sight of them, but, thank God, I quickly found them. There was that huge shot of adrenaline thinking they were lost, but then came the joy and relief when I found them nearby. Then came my parental lecture: “Where have you been?” “What were you thinking?” And then words of forgiveness: “Come give me a big hug!”

There’s a similar story in Luke’s Gospel concerning Mary and Joseph and their young son Jesus. This is the only place the Bible gives information about Jesus’ childhood beyond his birth and flight into Egypt. Luke tells us that the young lad Jesus wandered off from his parents. Seems like a rather ordinary thing—everyday stuff. One commentator put it this way:

We begin Jesus’ childhood by the angels ripping open the sky announcing his birth, and we end it with someone saying his name over the PA system at a Walmart: “Could the parents of…..what did you say your name was, honey? Could the parents of Jesus of Nazareth come to the cosmetics counter please?”

In the midst of the excitement surrounding Jesus’ birth and his escape to Egypt, we have the odd story of Jesus getting lost at the mall—er, the temple. It’s as though there were some more exciting stories of Jesus laying around and this one fell into the wrong file. Given the seemingly unremarkable nature of this story, I’ve titled this sermon “The Most Boring Story in the Gospels.” Boring, of course, until you take a closer look and see it in the context of the whole story as told in the Gospels.

The story told in the Gospels, particularly in Luke, is a message about how all people, from every class, tribe and nation, have a moment at the manger. Think of the characters involved, starting with Elizabeth and Zechariah, then Mary and Joseph, then the Bethlehem innkeeper, the lowly shepherds, eventually the rich wise men from the East. The point is that Jesus came for everyone; his advent changes things for everybody.

Luke’s story of Jesus at the temple at age 12 is a bit of a palate-cleanser from the Christmas story (which has become rather sugary and familiar). It’s a common story—children wandering off, worried parents in a panic scurrying around to find them. Yet, it’s a unique story in the way it reveals who Jesus is, and what that means for us. Let me offer three points derived from the story: 1) Jesus at the threshold, 2) Jesus gets lost, and 3) Jesus in real life.

1. Jesus at the threshold

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. (Luke 2:41-42)

It was March or April in about AD 8. Given that it was the warm time of year, there would have been fresh flowers and singing birds—all the springtime imagery. By including such details, Luke is showing that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews. Even more than that, because men were the only ones required to make the trip at Passover, Luke was showing Mary’s devotion in travelling with Joseph and taking along her son.

Travelling to Jerusalem from their home in Nazareth would be like travelling from a tiny country village in New Jersey to New York City. Jesus was a star-struck by what he found—Jerusalem. The temple, in particular, was the fountainhead of the identity of faithful Jews. Being in Jerusalem for the Passover Season was something to which all Jews looked forward.

As a 12-year-old, Jesus’ instruction in the Jewish faith would become even more intense. His parents would explain to Jesus why they went to the temple each year, and what the great story behind their people was all about. Age 12—the time in that culture of entering adulthood—was a time of learning and increased understanding, a threshold in life recognized pretty much the world over at that time. The body was going through puberty, the mind and emotions started changing drastically. It was on this threshold that Jesus was at the temple when he “should” have been with his parents.

2. Jesus gets lost

After the festival ended and Jesus’ parents began the trek home, unbeknownst to his parents, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Mistakenly thinking he was somewhere else in the travelling group, Joseph and Mary traveled on for a day.

It was a three-day journey back to Nazareth. The caravan in which they travelled would be like a group of minivans caravanning together in our day. It would not be strange for the parents to assume that their son was in another van with cousins. But when they pulled off the freeway to go to a Super Eight Motel, and went to find their teen and take him to the room for the night, the child was nowhere to be found! So they frantically went looking for him among the other relatives and friends in the caravan.

When Mary and Joseph did not locate Jesus in the caravan, they hurriedly returned to Jerusalem where, after three days, they found him in the temple. Think of it—three days!! Were we to lose our kids for three minutes, most of us would go into a cold sweat! We’d be looking in every doorway and back alley; the police station, all the hospitals, the arcades and fast-food restaurants.

A mother looking for her lost son is a common, yet highly evocative image. In literature, it’s called a “trope”—a certain action or situation that shows up in a lot of stories. This is the trope of human life, and in many ways the life of faith. Sometimes it’s like you can’t find God at all—no matter where you look. You even look in places that used to be familiar. God seemed to be present when I said this prayer or did this quiet time or went to this kind of church service, and then suddenly it seems my spiritual life is dry and dead and confusing. You’re looking in the doorways of those ideas or the back alleys of those old feelings, and you can’t find God. To mix metaphors, your frame doesn’t fit the picture anymore.

We can all think of study groups or accountability partnerships that seemed to “work” for us as Christians for a period of time, and then one day they didn’t seem to “work” anymore. We might initially panic, thinking God is lost or even worse, hiding. But the truth is much simpler, as we get older, although we’re thankful for the early study groups and the simple prayers that seemed to connect us with God, we grow in grace and knowledge and we find that godliness is a larger and more complex picture.

Though we may have “mastered” the habits of regular Bible study, something inside us is now saying, What’s next? What now? Okay, that part of the journey is complete, and I will walk in what I’ve learned, but there are new places to go, more to see. In such times you may be experiencing God calling you into serving others, participating in what he is doing. God may be calling you into a particular ministry—your part in his kingdom work. It  may be that God is calling you into marriage and starting a family. Perhaps God is calling you into new relationships, new ways of being. Maybe he’s calling you into work that will be more fulfilling, even though more demanding.

Perhaps you find yourself now in one of those difficult in-between-times when God seems lost to you, when you have lost your bearings a bit. But then you seek after him  like a mother looking for a lost child and you find him, and all is well, even if changed.

After three days they [Mary and Joseph] found Jesus in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. (Luke 2:46-48a)

We have to keep in mind that between Luke 2:40 and Luke 2:41, a decade has past—ten years since the visit of the wise men from the East and the blessing given Jesus by Simeon and Anna. Though we know nothing about those years, we assume that Jesus lived the life of a hard-working but well-loved Jewish kid growing up in Nazareth—a tiny blue-collar, back-water village. Maybe the memory of the miracles surrounding his birth were fading. Maybe Mary occasionally thought—”What actually happened?” Or Joseph thought—”Maybe that was all just a weird dream.” It wasn’t only the scribes and Pharisees who were amazed at Jesus’ answers, his parents were as well. There is Jesus, holding his own in the temple—a preteen holding court on the Senate floor, and everyone stops to listen!

Detail from “The Boy Jesus at the Temple” by Max Liebermann
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ parents would have been as shocked as anyone. Perhaps the memories came rushing back: the angels, the shepherds, the magi, the manger, the cold night they thought they might never survive. This is real; this is really happening!

I want to share a quote with you from CS Lewis, the great British Christian thinker. In the book Miracles, he writes this:

There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?

I’ve always loved that quote. Here we are just doing church, and suddenly Jesus shows up. Suddenly, it becomes clear again that we are dealing with a person—THE person, not a set of ideas, not a cultural structure, not a philosophical comfort blanket, not a mere concept.

These are the moments when we, like Mary and Joseph, walk into the temple to find Jesus doing what he’s always said he would do. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48b).

I love Mary’s wording. Even 2,000 years ago, in the Aramaic language, stressed-out parents use the phrasing we use: “Your father and I…” “Your father and I work too hard for you to… Your mother and I have been looking for you!”

“Why were you searching for me?” [Jesus] asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)

This is also translated, “I had to be about my father’s business.” In essence, Jesus is asking his parents, “Why are you surprised? You knew this was the deal. You knew I was going to be called to something different, that I wasn’t going to be just a kid from the old neighborhood.”

Jesus is at the age here, in that culture, and in most cultures throughout history, where he is proclaiming who he IS. He’s at that age where most of us start to develop an awareness that we are more than just a physical creature, that we have other levels of being. At that age, when Jewish males are given their bar-mitzvah, you start asking questions; you start to wonder.

Here Jesus’ personhood is coming out in more dimensions, and for him, his personhood is his God-hood as well. So we have this, the most “boring” and “everyday” of stories in the Gospels, becoming one of the most exciting—the moment that serves as a hinge between Jesus’ miraculous birth and his miraculous life.

I love that the story of Advent and Christmas funnels down to this. This week following Christmas Day is when many of us put the ornaments away and dispose of a badly shedding Christmas tree. The kids are playing with, breaking and getting bored of their new toys. “Real life” is back on: life that is straight up, sometimes boring, sometimes dramatic. Always exhausting old life is back in the house! That brings us to our third and final point:

3. Jesus in real life

After the shattering drama of the first two chapters, we come to the very real life of a tween on a family vacation. And that is what it comes down to again. We can have these great church services, these tearful moments and amazing singing, but what does that mean for us on Monday? Or better yet, what does Christmas mean for us in January? Maybe we had that time when we were very grateful, very aware, and spending some quality time with family and with what matters most—do we now go back to life as if nothing has happened?

Jesus, the same guy we met in those wonderful Christmas songs and those beautiful memories of Christmas gatherings and the intimacy with loved ones—it’s still here. Jesus is saying to us that things are different, that we are different. If our Christian life isn’t reflected in the way we treat the letter carrier, then we need to check ourselves. If our great spiritual depth isn’t shown in the way we relate to folks in daily life, in the good old friction of work and rest, intensity and boredom, then we should be questioning if we really are so “spiritually deep” after all.

Luke ends this section beautifully:

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51)

This is said once before this—earlier in the chapter after the shepherds visited the manger. It was right in the middle of the drama and excitement of Jesus’ birth with statements made by visitors—both people and angels. Now, in this second instance, it’s in the midst of a very “real life” incident where Jesus gets separated from his parents. Still, Mary treasured all of this in her heart. She treasured the gifts of God, both the dramatic and the mundane. Can we do that? Can we see God and his gifts in our lives beyond Sunday morning? Can we see Jesus in the way we relate to our spouse after a long day or our kids when they drop all the popcorn on the floor?

Conclusion

So today, we looked at:

  • Jesus at the threshold: Jesus declaring that his Father is first and foremost God.
  • Jesus gets lost: There are times when God seems lost to us. This is part of the process, part of the journey. When he reveals himself again, let’s listen, let’s pay attention.
  • Jesus in real life: Let’s not put Jesus away with the Christmas ornaments. He is in the rhythm of every day of the year.

The most “boring” story in the Gospels turns out to be one of the most exciting. Jesus is real and he wants you to enjoy the same relationship he has with Abba. Put Father first, listen and pay attention, get in the rhythm of making Jesus the center of your life.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • This week’s sermon tells the universal, relatable story of Jesus “getting lost” as a child. Can you share a personal story of getting lost or losing a child? The funnier the better, of course!
  • Has Jesus ever seemed “lost” to you? Has there ever been a time when you grew spiritually or went through something, then looked around and couldn’t “find” Jesus? How did you find him again? How did he draw you back to himself?
  • The sermon shared a quote from C.S. Lewis’s classic book Miracles: “There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion…suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” Have you had the experience of God making his presence suddenly known to you?—as Lewis puts it, of “a real footstep in the hall”?
  • It can be difficult to go from the emotional warmth and feasting of Christmas back to “real life.” It can seem like Jesus getting “lost.” What lessons from this year’s Advent Season and Christmas Day can we take into our “real life” ahead? What has changed for us—how will this year be different from last year? How can we keep the message of the Incarnation (Jesus coming into “real life” with us) in the forefront of our minds?

Sermon for Dec. 24/25, 2018 (Christmas)

Note: This sermon is for Christmas Eve or Day, which begins the 12 days of the Christmas season (for a Surprising God post about Christmas, click here). A Speaking of Life video and discussion questions are not provided with this sermon. For a Bible Project video exploring Luke's account of Jesus' birth, click here.
Scripture readings for today: 
Isa. 9:2-7 • Ps. 96 • Titus 2:11-14 • Luke 2:1-20

Jesus Shares Our Humanity

(Luke 2:1-20)

Introduction

Here on Christmas Day [or Christmas Eve] our focus turns to the miracle of the incarnation and birth of Jesus. In chapter 2 of his Gospel, Luke gives us a glimpse of the early life of Jesus as a newborn, infant and adolescent. In doing so he intends to help us understand how Jesus shared our humanity at each stage of his development as a human being. Luke wants us to see how Jesus beat back our fallen human nature, overcoming the temptations we face. At every point, Jesus (in his vicarious humanity, by the power of the Spirit) was re-creating our humanity. As God incarnate (sharing our flesh), Jesus not only is with us, but is radically one of us and for us. Joy to the world—the Lord is come!

Today, let’s focus on what Luke says concerning the newborn baby Jesus. In our Gospel reading today (Luke 2:1-20), Luke shows how the eternal Son of God came into the world of his creation, becoming human in the most humble and helpless way—born in a stable, then placed in an animal’s feeding trough.

“The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ birth draws Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

Caesar was ruling, but God was in charge—now using Caesar’s edict to move Mary and Joseph 80 miles from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. When Rome took a census every 14 years, every Jewish male had to return to the city of their fathers and there record their name, occupation, property and family of origin.

When Mary says, “Let it be to me according to Your word” (Luke 1:38, NKJV), little did she know what was in store for her as God went about fulfilling the many prophecies concerning the promised Messiah, including  that he would be human, Jewish, of the line of David, and born to a virgin in the village of Bethlehem, David’s town (Gen. 3:15; Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:1–17; Isa. 7:14; Micah 5:2).

Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” was the ideal birthplace for the Bread of Life. Its rich historic heritage included the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin (Gen. 35:16–20), the marriage of Ruth, and the exploits of David. This ordinary scene thus speaks of God’s mighty hand.

Mary’s journey to Bethlehem must have been exhausting. Nevertheless, she rejoiced in doing God’s will, and, no doubt, was glad to get away from the gossip-mongers in Nazareth.

Jesus’ birth draws the angels from heaven

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14)

Think of it—the Creator of the vast cosmos, born as a lowly creature. The eternal Word of God has become a speechless baby! The angels announced this stunning event first to the lowliest of the lows—shepherds. How ironic! Shepherds were outcasts—not even allowed to testify in court. Luke’s point is clear: God cares about the poor and lowly. Moreover, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Lamb of God sacrificed for ALL humanity. Luke is emphasizing that the gospel is good news for everyone. All are included!

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10) is a key theme in Luke’s Gospel. Literally the angel says, “I announce to you good news, a great joy which shall be to all the people.” He uses the Greek word that means “preach the good news,” a word Luke uses often in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, which he also wrote. What is this good news? That God has sent a Savior to meet the greatest need of all people—that need here described as peace. The Jewish word shalom (peace) means much more than the absence of war. It means well-being, health, prosperity, security, soundness, and completeness. It has to do more with inner character than outward circumstance.

Life was difficult. Taxes and unemployment were high, and morals were slipping lower. Roman law, Greek philosophy, and even the religion of Israel under the Law of Moses could not bring the shalom of God to anyone’s heart. So God sent his Son. And the angels cried out in praise. They had done so at creation (Job 38:7), and now they do so as God commences a stunning re-creation in and through Jesus, the Creator of the cosmos now clothed in our humanity.

The purpose of the re-creation is to unite all humankind with God’s “glory.” That glory once dwelt in the tabernacle, then the temple, but it had departed because of Israel’s continuing sin. Now God’s glory has returned in the person of Jesus—God in flesh. Now the “holy of holies” containing God’s presence is a human baby lying in a lowly manger. Glory to God!

 Jesus’ birth draws shepherds from the fields

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:15-20)

The shepherds knew what to look for: a newborn baby lying in a manger. When they found the baby, they worshiped him and marveled at God’s grace and goodness and the miracle he had done for them.

Conclusion

The shepherds, as common people, are models for us today. They received by faith and then responded in obedience to the message God sent. After finding the baby, they shared the good news of what they had encountered with others. In doing so, they glorified and praised God. Then they humbly returned to their duties, new men going back to their life’s vocation. Though they were mere shepherds, God used them to be the first humans to testify to the arrival of the promised Messiah. May we follow their example by living and sharing the good news in our ordinary, everyday lives. Merry Christmas! Christ has come.

Sermon for Dec. 23, 2018 (Advent 4)

Note: This sermon is for the last Sunday of the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays that precede Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today:
Micah 5:2-5 • Ps. 80:1-7 • Heb. 10:5-10 • Luke 1:39-55)

Doing God’s Will

(Hebrews 10:5-10)

Introduction

Note to preacher: You may want to share a personal anecdote that answers one of the introductory questions.

Have you ever struggled trying to determine God’s will for you life? Have you ever feared that your decisions would lead you out of God’s will? Have you ever struggled trying to figure out how to determine God’s will? Have you ever felt guilty about the decisions that seemed to take you outside God’s will? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. It is not uncommon for such feelings of fear and anxiety to arise among those who seek to discover and then do God’s will for them. But we need not be anxious; we need not fear. Let us be instructed by Jesus’ words and example.

Jesus’ example

Jesus, who always obediently followed God’s will, was rarely anxious or fearful in doing so. Even when following the will of God meant stepping into trying circumstances, Jesus obeyed. The author of Hebrews put it this way:

When Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, my God.’”

First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:5-10)

Here the author of Hebrews takes poetic license in having Jesus speak to us about God’s will. Quoting Psalm 40:6-8, he puts David’s words in Jesus’ mouth, letting us know that the incarnate Son of God has come to do the Father’s will.

Jesus is the Father’s will

Through the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, who took on flesh (incarnation), we see the Father’s will of bringing all his children back to a right relationship with him—a goal accomplished once for all in and through Jesus. Jesus is the superior sacrifice that sanctifies us. It is through Jesus’ sacrifice that God’s will for us is finally accomplished. We have been made holy (sanctified) in Jesus. When Jesus came to do the Father’s will, he becomes God’s will for us.

That being the case, when we wonder what God’s will is for our lives, we need look no further than Jesus. He is God’s perfect will for us all. God is not looking for us to perform some perfect physical sacrifice that will earn us a spiritual standing with him. Nor is God looking for some spiritual sacrifice that has nothing to do with our physical existence. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is the spiritual sacrifice offered in a physical body. It’s in Jesus that God’s will of being in holy communion with his people has been fully realized—once and for all time.

Coming to know Jesus

Understanding this reality changes how we approach knowing and doing God’s will. As we come to know Jesus by walking with him, step-by-step, day-in-and-day-out, we come to know God’s will. We live into a deeper relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

Coming to know Jesus is coming to know God’s will. Out of this knowing flows our doing. To do God’s will is to participate in what Jesus is doing.
Our journey with Jesus is not one in which we are trying to figure out our every next move under a cloud of fear. We rest in knowing him and in following him. Jesus leads us to know him, and his Father through him, and that is doing God’s will.

Another way to speak of doing God’s will is to speak of embracing and so receiving what God is doing, rather than offering our works as a sacrifice to appease him. God’s will is a work in Jesus that is to be received, not a work from us to be achieved. The apostle Paul put it this way:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

Notice that, in this case, doing God’s will is not about discerning and then moving into a particular circumstance. Rather it’s about being thankful in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, and then receiving God’s work within that circumstance. God is not sitting back waiting for us to find our way forward. He has sent his Son to bring us forward into our future home in relationship with his Father.

An analogy

Maybe an analogy will be helpful here: Have you ever had to navigate your way while driving in a storm? It’s hard enough seeing the road in front of you and the cars around you, let alone the road signs that need to be read to keep from getting lost. Maybe you were driving and trying to read a map at the same time. While doing so, you feared crashing into an unexpected obstacle in the road. Even with modern-day GPS devices, this would be an anxiety-causing experience: What if we make a wrong turn? Will we ever find our way back? How long will we have to hear the rather obnoxious voice  of our GPS saying, “Recalculating! Recalculating!” Does this sound like your experience in trying to find God’s will for your life? If so, there’s little room for rejoicing and thanksgiving.

Now imagine you are in the same car, in the same storm, but you are not driving. Jesus is. Your job is to ride in the passenger seat, trust the driver, enjoying the ride, despite the story. He knows the route and knows a thing or two about storms. Even when you don’t see the road ahead clearly, you can relax because you trust the driver—so you keep your eyes on him, enjoying your conversation with him; resting in him, knowing you are right where you are meant to be.

Though not perfect, this analogy illustrates the difference between trying to find God’s will for your life and receiving Jesus as God’s will for your life. Hopefully it helps us understand what God has done for us and what he is up to in sending his Son Jesus as the gift of knowing and being in relationship with him and his Father.

Why did God give Israel the sacrificial system?

The author of Hebrews goes on to tell us that it was never God’s intent that we should figure out our way home to him:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. (Heb. 10:8)

“High Priest Offering Incense”
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Does it seem like a contradiction for God to give the Law of Moses with its sacrifices to Israel, then say that he does not desire sacrifice and offerings? But there is no contradiction—what we are learning is that these sacrifices were not God’s ultimate purpose—not his final goal. They were given as a temporary form of worship until the reality in Jesus Christ was revealed. God took this approach as an act of love, in order to bring his people Israel to a fuller understanding of who he is.

God is an accommodating God. He entered the pagan culture of Israel’s time and joined himself to them where they were. Though God did not want a relationship with them built on rules and regulations, he used the sacrificial system to help Israel feel comfortable journeying with him until Jesus would come. Thus, even the sacrificial system was God’s grace to Israel. The people of Israel did not need to approach the altar of sacrifice fearing that their sacrifices were not good enough. God, who provided the sacrifice, told them exactly what to bring and when.

The sacrificial system God gave Israel was very detailed. The people were not left guessing what God required of them. Thus, the Israelites could relax and come to know this God as the gracious God that he is. They did not have to anxiously wonder if they were outside God’s will. As they then followed God’s directives, they were gently led in the direction of where the sacrificial system was designed to take them—toward Jesus. However, as we know, they did not follow, though this disobedience was also part of God’s plan to take them to Jesus where they find forgiveness and reconciliation.

Conclusion

As we near the end of Advent Season, may we let go of any anxiousness or fearfulness concerning God’s will for us. Yes, we should strive to both understand and do God’s will, but we do so in faith, with hope and love, knowing that Jesus, who is God’s will, is in the driver’s seat and has us, by the Spirit, in his loving, superintending care. We can let go of the steering wheel—it’s in good hands—the hands of God’s perfect, complete and final sacrifice given on our behalf. As we journey with him, we come to know the Father’s will—his grace and peace to us in the person of his incarnate Son.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • This week’s sermon addressed the frustration of trying to figure out and do the will of God. What is a time when you’ve been frustrated?
  • If God does not desire or take pleasure in sacrifices and offerings, what is it that he does desire and take pleasure in?
  • What so-called “sacrifices” in our day might we confuse with God’s will for our lives?
  • If Jesus is God’s will for us, what does it mean for us to do God’s will?

Sermon for Dec. 16, 2018 (Advent 3)

Note: This sermon is for the third Sunday of the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays that precede Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today:
Zeph. 3:14-20 • Isa. 12:2-6 • Phil. 4:4-7 • Luke 3:7-18

Aggressive Gratitude

(Philippians 4:4-9)

Several years ago, the book The Count of Monte Cristo was made into a movie that starred Richard Harris and Christian actor Jim Caviezel. The beginning of the film is set in the desolation of a hopeless island prison. Richard Harris plays an older prisoner who has found a way to survive in this dark place. As a spiritual survival technique, each morning when his gruel bucket would be tossed through the door of his cell, he would say, “Thank you.” The guards only know he’s dead only when, for the first time in 12 years, they don’t hear him say “Thank you.”

Can you imagine being grateful in a place like prison? Every time the old man was offered the thin gruel that kept him barely alive, he would express gratitude. He had been unjustly imprisoned, beaten, and mistreated, and his spirit  survived only by sheer gratitude. I think about this from time to time when I find myself getting perturbed by little things—where is my attitude of gratitude?

Today I want to talk with you not just about having an attitude of gratitude but about what we might call aggressive gratitude. That phrase couples the emotion of aggression (fighting, conflict, anger) with the emotion of gratitude (thankfulness, giving and receiving, peace). On the surface, this combination seems like an oxymoron (like vegetarian bacon, jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence). But aggressive gratitude is an appropriate term for us to consider.

Facing anxiety

In our reading from the New Testament epistles today, we continue in the book of Philippians. When Paul sent this letter to the church at Philippi, he was in prison—possibly a form of house arrest, chained to a Roman guard much of the time. Though he had occasional visitors and was able to write letters (some becoming books of the New Testament), he was still imprisoned. Though the conditions were not the worst he’d ever experienced, he was, nevertheless, anxious, for he was awaiting trial.

“Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the time in the ancient world, people weren’t kept in jail for long. Rather than used as punishment, jail was where you awaited punishment, which typically involved torture or execution. Thus, Paul, attached to a soldier much of the time, awaited his forthcoming punishment, not knowing what it would entail. As they say: “The certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.” Paul writes Philippians in the middle of the misery of uncertainty.

Words of encouragement

Paul’s letter is intended for the community of Christians that met in Philippi—a church he had founded some 10 to 15 years earlier. He is telling them of his longing to return to see them. Different from Paul’s usual letters, he isn’t writing to correct a problem. He’s not rebuking them for false theology or for a particular sin—this is mostly a letter of encouragement and friendship. He is telling them to keep going, to keep walking in faith. They are being ridiculed and persecuted by their neighbors, and there are troubles within the church including divisions and doctrinal fights. Paul exhorts them to be aggressively grateful for the presence of God with them now, and for the life that is theirs in the world to come.

I think Philippians is where we find Paul most centered, proclaiming, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” “Whatever happens to me, conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel,” “I count all as loss so that I might know Christ.” Instead of arguing or rebuking, Paul is living in the peace that passes human understanding. Have you ever been in that place? Have you ever been in love, where you were so filled with purpose and strength that everything that used to scare you or anger you just fell away?

Centered on Christ

My opinion is that Paul, despite the stressful circumstances of his imprisonment, wrote these words when he was at peace, completely centered on Christ. He commends that mindset, that way of being, to the Philippian Christians:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Phil. 4:4-5)

Paul repeats the word “rejoice” multiple times in this letter. He commends them to do so “in the Lord.” It’s interesting that he uses that phrase. He does not say, rejoice because life is so great. He doesn’t say rejoice because Oprah says it’s good for your cardio health. He says rejoice in the Lord—rejoice because your daily reality is shaped by your heavenly reality. Rejoice for the Lord is near! Paul, facing who knows what punishment, maybe even death, keeps that ultimate reality in focus—he rejoices in realities that can’t be diminished by his immediate physical circumstances. Paul rejoices, despite his circumstances knowing that God is in control, that God will supply all his needs, and even if should he die, life with God awaits him.

Do not be anxious

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil. 4:6)

Anxious. There’s that word. Psychology Today described anxiety as “the modern plague.”  There is no shortage of things to make us anxious in today’s world. Yet there is a severe shortage of ways to deal with that anxiety. Paul writes about true freedom from anxiety: “be anxious for nothing,” he says. In saying this he seems to be quoting Jesus, who said, “Do not worry about your life…” (Matt. 6:25). Jesus’s teaching and Paul’s theme in Philippians is that God, who is in control, can be trusted—our true citizenship and home is in heaven and we can count on that, no matter what happens here on earth.

Most of us have faced the death of a loved one. When someone is sick, we get anxious, and as their condition worsens, it’s easy for us to get more and more anxious. Sometimes it’s difficult to take Jesus’ and Paul’s words to heart—to not worry, to not be anxious.

God is in control

Paul is telling us that we don’t control the circumstances in our lives. In fact, we don’t really control our lives at all—any one of us can be in an accident, come down with a deadly disease, or develop dementia. But no matter what we face, or what a loved one faces, we are never outside of God’s superintending control. Though we live and die as residents in this world (which is passing away), our true citizenship is with God in heaven. Because of that, we need not be anxious. We are safe and secure in God’s hands.

We can be thankful knowing  we will see our loved ones again—thankful knowing that eternal life, not death or disease, is our deepest reality. Because the joy of relationship is ours forever, we can practice aggressive gratitude even when the relationship is temporarily interrupted. We can, through the grace given us, celebrate the memories and even rejoice in the pain, knowing it means that we’ve experienced God’s gift of love.

The antidote to anxiety: God’s peace

The old prisoner in The Count of Monte Cristo survived by being grateful. His gratitude marked his days and nights and gave him power to determine how he was going to feel even in the worst circumstances.

The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

In our culture today, we have all sorts of tricks and gimmicks to reduce anxiety or try to make ourselves into better people. But because they all are about believing and looking into self, they have no lasting benefit.
We need the stronger medicine offered by Paul, who sees no disconnect between our life with God and our daily life (troubling though it might be). Paul calls us to lift the anxieties of daily life up to God and experience the peace that passes human understanding. That peace can’t be found within ourselves or within this world. As Paul notes, it’s a peace that comes from God—one that guards our heart and mind, for it’s the peace we experience “in Christ Jesus”—it’s his peace, shared with us by the Spirit.

Paul is telling us that as we maintain a prayerful posture of aggressive gratitude, our hearts and minds will be guarded. The Greek word Paul used for guarded is one used for a military battalion. It’s as though he is saying that a formidable group of spear-wielding soldiers will guard (maintain) our peace. In writing this, perhaps Paul had in mind the Roman soldier to which he was chained. His point is that God’s peace—Christ’s peace—is our guard. Our Lord surrounds us like a military guard surrounds a castle—ensuring the inhabitants’ safety. With God as our guard, we can have peace within, despite circumstances without.

Turn your thoughts

Paul reminds us of our heavenly connection, and urges us to plug into that: Rejoice, pray, be aggressively grateful, enjoy the privileges of your heavenly citizenship—even in the harshness of daily reality, and God’s peace will guard you. Then Paul turns to the part of our lives where we do have some control—the power to change our minds. In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul urges Christians to “take every thought captive,” and to do so for God’s glory. Paul knows how squirrelly and scattered our minds are—how quickly we focus on the negative, how quickly we forget that God is the one with the final word. Along those lines, he writes this to the Philippian Christians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever remains true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9)

The church at Philippi was facing persecution and other sources of trouble. Their first instinct might have been to panic, to succumb to anxiety by turning inward. Instead Paul urges them to turn their eyes upon Jesus and through his eyes focus on what is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and thus praiseworthy. They should not flee the world, but continue in their ministry to the world with a mindset that is tempered by God’s peace.

How about us? In a post-Christian culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith, do we draw away from the world into a “Christian cave” where we have our own music, movies, books, clothes? Though some of these things can feed our spirits, they sometimes go too far as we practice a form of escapism that is contrary to the mission we have been given. Sadly, we sometimes become what Dwight Moody warned against—becoming so “heavenly minded” that we become of no “earthly good.”

Paul tells us that because the entire world belongs to God, we can enjoy its good things in the way he intends. Knowing that romance, money and work cannot fill the void in us that only Christ fills, we can enjoy these temporary gifts of God all the more. And so Paul tells us to “think about these things”—to see the beauty and goodness around us as the promise that our loving, creative, joy-filled God is the source and ruler of it all.

Conclusion

The world we live in today has its trials and tragedies. We live in the time between Jesus’ first and second comings (the “time-between-the-times”), during which, as Paul says, we have dual citizenship. The Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony) were citizens of both the kingdom of Rome and of the kingdom of God. Paul makes it clear that they have responsibilities related to both, though their first allegiance is to the kingdom of God, a citizenship that comes with both responsibilities and privileges.

What Paul wanted them to know, and what I pray we will take away from his message, is that through prayerful, aggressive gratitude, we can enjoy the peace of God even here, even despite the troubles, trials and tragedies that befall us as citizens here in this world. Paul’s words focus on three things:

  • Our citizenship. We are citizens of God’s kingdom here in this world. We know God is in charge.
  • Our minds. We are to set our minds on things above through prayerful, aggressive gratitude. The more we do so, the more we’ll experience God’s peace. And that peace will guard our hearts and minds.
  • Our gentleness. Paul exhorts us to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (Phil. 4:5). The word for gentleness includes the ideas of forbearance and reasonableness—not retaliating when doing so is the natural reaction. This gentleness-under-fire is a true witness to God’s grace and goodness. As followers of Jesus, we seek to display the gentleness, kindness, and freedom of a heart guarded by the peace of God.

During Advent we are reminded of Jesus’ “comings” to save us. May these celebrations inspire us to faithfully practice aggressive gratitude.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The title of this week’s sermon (Aggressive Gratitude) is an oxymoron. Can you name others—serious or funny? (Examples: jumbo shrimp, confirmed rumor, military intelligence, congressional ethics.)
  • In the movie, The Count of Monte Christo, the old man survives his imprisonment by saying “thank you” every day that he is given his bucket of gruel. Have you ever thought of gratitude as a means of spiritual-emotional survival? Has this ever been the case in your life? [Idea: watch the movie as a group, then ask these questions.]
  • In Philippians 4:7 Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The word he uses for “guard” is the word for a garrison (large group) of soldiers. Have you ever felt God’s peace “guarding” you? A heavily-guarded peace is another oxymoron that Paul seems to be living out, experiencing peace even while under arrest. Have you ever experienced peace that didn’t match circumstances (one that “passes understanding”)?
    • Paul continues by encouraging us to take our thoughts captive: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8). How can we do this in a world flooded with media and entertainment? What are some habits we can cultivate to keep our thoughts captive for God’s glory?

Sermon for Dec. 9, 2018 (Advent 2)

Note: This sermon is for the second Sunday of Advent, the season that spans the four Sundays preceding Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today:
Mal. 3:1-4 • Luke 1:68-79 • Phil. 1:3-11 • Luke 3:1-6

Participants in Christ’s Ministry

(Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11)

Introduction

Note to preacher: You might begin with a personal anecdote about anticipation-preparation: expecting the birth of your first child, the wedding of an adult child, the birth of a grandchild.

When anticipating something good such as a high school graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child or grandchild, a visit with old friends, a much-needed vacation, or retirement, there is joy in the anticipation. But when we’re anticipating something not so good, such as being cut from a sports team, losing someone you love, or corporate downsizing, the anticipation can be filled with dread and agony.

In the time covered in today’s reading in Luke, though the people of God had been anticipating the Messiah for a long time, they were not prepared for what actually occurred. None of the Old-Testament prophets (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) had provided the full picture of what was to come. But then came John the son of Zechariah—we know him as John the Baptist. His prophetic ministry was unique in its scope and detail in announcing the Messiah.

Today, on this the second Sunday of Advent Season, we will focus on the important ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. We will also draw a parallel with how God has invited us to also be participants in preparing the way for our Lord and Savior.

The picture we get from the four Sundays of Advent is almost like looking in a mirror and seeing a reverse image: we are presented with a picture of the ministry of the Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in reverse from Jesus Christ’s second coming to his first coming. Though today we will focus on our readings in Luke and Philippians, I encourage you to also read Malachi 3:1-4 this afternoon or later this week. Together, these passages portray the anticipation and participation in ministry that we are given as we await our Lord’s return.

John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation

God sent Gabriel from his side in heaven to tell Zechariah the priest about the forthcoming birth of a son to be named John. Gabriel announced that John would “bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). After the baby was born, Zechariah, led by the Spirit, spoke these words:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)

What a special ministry was predicted for John! Let’s look now at today’s Gospel reading to see what John did and how he did it. Luke gives us a historical marker of when John served:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch 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)

Roman and Jewish historical records place this event at AD 27 or 28. Although John had been appointed some 30 years earlier, God set a specific time in history for his important ministry to begin. The time had now arrived. The Father was soon to send his Son, Jesus, to begin his history-changing, world-saving work, so he led John to begin his participatory, preparatory ministry:

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” (Luke 3:3-6)

According to Luke 1:80, John “grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” After spending the early years of his life in a small town in Judea’s hill country, John moved to the deserted area east of Jerusalem. Zechariah and Elizabeth had raised him as instructed, taught him the Hebrew Scriptures, and shared with him the prophetic messages about his future ministry. John grew and became strong in the Spirit. When God called him to start his ministry, he left the desert and began preaching a message of repentance in preparation for the forthcoming ministry of Jesus.

John had to leave his familiar, though solitary, home to go where he could work to restore a God-consciousness in the Jewish people of his day. After years of being dominated by foreign empires, the public mindset had become secularized with personal survival being the highest priority. Although the Jews continued to have routine religious activities, the word of God was not guiding their daily living. John called on his Jewish kinsmen to repent—to turn back to God—and he followed up with the rite of baptism (see picture below). The area around the Jordan River was an appropriate setting for those who left their cities and towns to listen as John, a gifted preacher, reminded them of their roots as the people of God. The baptism in water dramatized their cleansing through God’s gracious forgiveness.

“St. John Baptizes the People” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Isaiah’s poetic words related to John’s calling predicted a prophet powerfully calling on people to change their ways so that they would be responsive to the saving ministry of the Messiah, God’s Son. John was not seeking his own following—he understood that his role was to point the people to Jesus, not to himself. His ministry drew people’s attention to the Messiah who was to appear very soon.

One of the highlights of John’s ministry was to participate in Jesus’ baptism—a baptism not necessary for Jesus (who had not sinned), but necessary for all of us. Even today, believers continue to participate in that baptism as a sign of their repentance and faith.

As abruptly as John’s ministry at the Jordan began, it ended with his arrest. Herod “locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:20b). He did not enjoy the pleasure of carrying on his ministry into old age. In fact, his ministry lasted for no more than a year or two. Behind prison walls, John could not rejoice in seeing the results of his work of service.

John was a special prophet, foretold in Scripture, and honored to prepare for the Messiah. No greater prophetic work was ever done before him, and yet it was cut short of any immediate rewarding celebration. This combination: privileged calling, yet unfulfilled ultimate results, may seem somewhat conflicting. What lessons can we learn from John’s experience? What similarities do we find in the ministry of the church?

The church’s similar ministry

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says this concerning Luke’s account of John the Baptist:

Luke raises up John as a model for his churches. They, too, prepare for Messiah Jesus and are not the Messiah. They, too, are the pioneers leading others to the frontiers of faith in Jesus. Whenever John’s story is preached as part of the good news, they are challenged to repent, so that they, too, may be prepared for the advent of the Lord Jesus.

As modern readers of the Gospels, it’s easy to overlook this connection. The profound truth is that just as John the Baptist participated in Jesus Christ’s ministry, preparing people to receive Jesus, so has the ministry of the church participated for the past 1900+ years—and that includes this congregation today.

We were designated before creation and have been called now to participate. We cannot fulfill this ministry inside the walls of our Sunday gathering places any more than John could fulfill his ministry without leaving his familiar home and going to the Jordan River. Our calling is part of an awesome work, and yet, like John, we often serve without the opportunity to enjoy the end results.

Let’s consider another of today’s readings, which enlarges on this role of participation:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil. 1:3-4)

The apostle Paul considered the members of the church at Philippi his partners in ministry. Their involvement started when Paul first evangelized the city more than 10 years before he wrote this letter from prison. Over the years that transpired, they had actively continued that participation.

For those of us who wonder if our small congregation can make a difference, let me share what the Oxford Companion to the Bible says in summary concerning the church at Philippi:

[It] apparently was first housed in Lydia’s home. In spite of its small beginnings, it grew and became an active Christian community, taking an important part in evangelism, readily sharing its own material possessions, even out of deep poverty, and generously sending one of its own people to assist Paul in his work and to aid him when he was in prison.

The members of the church at Philippi were not apostles. Most of them were not even preachers. But, together, they all participated in the ways that they were gifted by the Holy Spirit. They faithfully fulfilled their calling and mission to make disciples, modeling faithfulness in that mission for other churches. Though their part in this high calling was not always pleasurable, it was always powerful and spiritually rewarding. Paul’s letter to them came from a prison cell. Their emissary to Paul, Epaphroditus, in carrying out his appointed task to visit Paul, almost died for the work of Christ (Phil. 2:30). The congregation experienced both joy and sorrow as they joined Jesus in ministry. Many of the churches of that time—just like today—experienced internal problems, which we read about in some of Paul’s letters.

Paul referred to himself and Timothy as “servants of Jesus Christ” in the opening words of his letter to the church at Philippi. That is who we are as well—servants who partner with Jesus to fulfill his mission. In other words, the members of the church at Philippi, in partnering with Paul in ministry, were participants in Christ’s ministry. From the city of Philippi, they reached out, sharing the gospel, serving the poor and supporting Paul as they reached far beyond their city limits in the work of Jesus.

Conclusion

As we proceed through this Advent Season, going in reverse from the second coming of Jesus toward his first coming, we are wise to consider the stage of Christ’s ministry in which we find ourselves today. Ours is a ministry of participation with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist prepared the Jewish people for Jesus’ ministry. Paul likewise ministered to both Jews and Gentiles, and many of them partnered with him. Today, we follow in the footsteps of these outstanding examples as we participate with Jesus, as he comes to us by the Spirit, in his ongoing ministry to the world.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The sermon this week addressed the topic of anticipation. Share a time when you were anticipating something negative. Talk about the emotions. Now share a time when you were anticipating something good. Share those emotions.
  • For years, Israel looked for the Messiah. Explain what you think that meant to them.
  • How are you preparing for the celebration of the Incarnation?
  • Read Malachi 3:1-4 and discuss what these verses mean. What does it mean to be like a refiner’s fire, or a launderer’s soap?
  • Read the poem of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79). Discuss the poetry. What did people think as they heard it? What did Elizabeth think?
  • How are you participating in Christ’s ministry?

Sermon for Dec. 2, 2018 (Advent 1)

Note: With this sermon we enter the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays that precede Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four Advent-themed videos from GCI, click here.
Scripture readings for today:
Jer. 33:14-16 • Ps. 25:1-10 • 1 Thess. 3:9-13 • Luke 21:25-36

The Hope of Hope

(Jeremiah 33:14-16, ESV)

For some music for the season of Advent, click here.

Introduction

Note to preacher: Begin with a personal anecdote. Here's a sample:

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. In my house, that means eating Thanksgiving leftovers while putting up the Christmas tree. Advent, followed by Christmas is my favorite season of the year. Each year we put out a manger scene with shepherds,  wise men, Mary and Joseph, and a donkey or two. Though inaccurate in many of its details, the scene tells a powerful story, providing a sentiment that gets us thinking about the Incarnation (God becoming flesh).

“Nativity” by Botticelli (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As a symbol of hope, the manger scene reminds us of Jeremiah’s powerful prophecy delivered many years before Jesus’ birth. His message was one of hope for the Jews—hope for the coming of their promised Messiah, which meant that the Jewish nation would be delivered from oppression.:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16, ESV)

Hope is a powerful emotion, and it’s the theme for today, the first Sunday of Advent. Unfortunately, hope is often trivialized in our culture. We are told: Don’t lose hope! Keep hope alive! H.O.P.E.—Have Only Positive Expectations. We find the word hope emblazoned on cross-stitch samplers and pillows. On a TV show written by an outspoken atheist, the hero declares, “I don’t pray. I hope.” In our culture, hope has become a buzzword—almost a magical word. It’s just one of those things you say: Go get your hope on! We hear it in so many contexts that the word seems to have lost any significance. It’s like white noise in our ears. We are almost tone-deaf to it.

But in the book of Jeremiah, including our reading today, hope is profoundly important. It was written at a time when hope was in short supply. Jeremiah himself was involved in many less-than-hopeful situations, including the devastation of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon, his imprisonment at the command of the king of Judah, and being kidnapped at midnight by a group of rebels. When Jeremiah shares what God says about hope, you can be assured it had great personal meaning for him. Jeremiah sees hope as something essential to survival—his view of hope is tough, enduring and vital. Today we’ll see how Jeremiah views hope in three ways: 1) hope in season, 2) hope in action, and 3) hope within hope.

Hope in season

Jeremiah had one of the most brutal careers of all of God’s prophets. Called “the weeping prophet,” he spent most of his career telling the people of Judah (the southern kingdom) that judgment was coming upon them due to their sins, which included idolatry along with mistreatment of the poor, the widows and disabled people. Jeremiah’s preaching made him very unpopular with the people of Judah, particularly its king, Zedekiah, who tried to silence Jeremiah by imprisoning him (Jer. 32:3). Now, instead of running through the city of Jerusalem pointing out everything that was wrong, Jeremiah was limited to preaching by correspondence. It’s ironic that it was during this imprisonment, when Jeremiah likely lamented that he could no longer do the work of God, he was led by God to pen the words of hope we read in chapter 33.

Here’s a question: Have you ever felt imprisoned by circumstances? At such trying times has God sent you words of hope? Perhaps it was a passage of Scripture, or a phone call, or a card from a loved one. It may have been a sermon, or the lyrics to a song. Hope is found primarily in Jesus, the Savior of the world. We find great hope knowing that he has come, is coming now by the Spirit, and will come again to set all things right. Because of Jesus, we know that this life is not all that there is. We know that the pain, sorrow, trial and even death we experience on this side of Jesus’ return are temporary. When Jesus returns, he will do what is just and right.

Just a few chapters before this prophecy of hope, God said this through Jeremiah to the Jewish elders held captive in Babylon:

I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11)

Like the elders in exile, Jeremiah was locked away. Outside the prison, the city was burning. He likely could hear the screams of the victims. All seemed hopeless. But God gave him a message that restored his hope:

In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. (Jer. 33:15)

Perhaps Jeremiah was familiar with the similar words spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. (Isa. 11:1-2)

The Hebrew word translated stump is netser. It likely refers to a gnarled old grape vine that has been cut down to the roots—just a stump left. The promise is that this gnarled, old, seemingly lifeless stump will send out a new shoot—new growth, new hope. Netser became the name of a town you’re familiar with Netseret–we know it as Nazareth. From out of Nazareth (the old stump) came Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth. He came in the midst of devastation, a time when all hope seemed gone. He came not only bearing a message of hope, but he was, in himself, the Hope of not only Israel, but of all humanity.

Jeremiah’s prophecy tells Israel that there is cause for hope. It’s also a message for us—one that should give us hope. We too can trust God to bring us through even the worst seasons in life. No matter how great the difficulties we’re going through, we know they are not the final word. We know this because we know WHO controls the seasons of life. We know WHO brings resurrection—WHO restores life to what seems dead, what seems without hope. Advent reminds us of hope in season. It reassures us that Jesus is coming again as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Hope in action

Advent also tells us about hope in action. Before Jeremiah gave his hope-filled messianic prophecy, we learn in Jer. 32:6-15, that God told Jeremiah to buy a parcel of land in Judah at the very time the country was being invaded by the Babylonians. God then told Jeremiah that his land would be stolen, then destroyed. Granted, the land had a rock-bottom price, but who in their right mind buys land in the midst of an invasion? From a human perspective, doing so makes no sense. Yet Jeremiah did what God told him to do. He bought the land, then gave the deed to his servant Baruch for safekeeping. Jeremiah was taking part in a revolutionary act of hope. This was hope in action.

What does hope in action look like for us? What actions are we taking that say we play by different rules—ones set out by the ultimate Ruler? Jeremiah bought a piece of land he had never seen and in a turbulent time. He did so, confident that God had a good reason for what he was asking. Is that how we live? I think it is. Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Every week, we choose to give offerings at church. By this act of generosity we declare that our hope is in God, not in wealth. We are saying that God is in charge of our finances.
  • Every day, we choose to love people (including those closest to us). Instead of reacting in anger when they frustrate or disappoint us, we choose to share in God’s love for them, a love based not on what they do, but on who they are—God’s beloved.

These are just two examples of hope in action—the hope of Advent. In what ways is God asking you to put hope into action in your life? Perhaps what he is asking you to do makes no sense right now, but can you choose to obey him anyway? Doing so is what keeping your eyes on the kingdom of God is all about. Doing so enabled Joe Tkach Sr., J. Michael Feazell, Joseph Tkach Jr. (and many others) to lead the radical transformation of our denomination out of error and into truth—taking action even though they knew there would be a severe backlash. They did so because they hoped in and thus trusted in God. Thankfully many followed their lead, keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus—on the reality of his life, death, resurrection, ascension and on the promise of his return. That was hope in action.

Hope within hope

And then there is hope within hope:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16, ESV)

Note to preacher: A personal example would be good here: A first kiss, your marriage, your first child or grandchild, a first time playing in a game, a first dance, a first concert, something you hoped for that came to pass. Build it up and share the excitement. Here's an example:

The first “real” concert I attended had 40,000 people in a football stadium to hear the rock group U2. It was the summer of 1992, I was 15 years old. I remember it vividly—from getting our Doc Martins on, to fighting our way to our seats, to jumping over a fence to get back to the car before we were crushed by the crowd. It was amazing. They were one of my favorite bands and continue to be—they still have the old magic. But for a suburban teenager, this was about as close to heaven as I’d ever felt.

The concert producers knew what they were doing. There had three opening acts, all leaving us aching to see Bono jump up on stage to do his thing. The stage was rigged with hundreds of TVs; it was quite a display, especially 25 years ago. The last of the opening acts finished and the screen went dark. Then a flicker on one screen. Then on another. A cascade of images and sounds and color. Then dark again. Then all the screens went off at once—then black. Then a news anchor over here, then Martin Luther King over here, then a video of the Hollywood sign. Finally, a bank of over 100 screens flashed to life. Finally one huge image of George W. Bush, who was president at the time, dubbed over to say: “We will rock you. We will rock you.” In front of him the shadow of the great rock and roller—BONO! The lights went up and there’s the whole band and the show begins! And the crowd goes wild! There’s this little flickering in the dark, just a hint. A note played on a guitar, a drumbeat. Then suddenly, there he is.

In a way, Advent is like that—it’s a season of anticipation. We light the candles, read the scriptures, sing the songs, all in anticipation of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Advent Season spans the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. It’s a replay, in miniature, of the grand drama of God and humanity. It’s the “sacred romance” of God and people—his pursuit of us and finally our coming home to him.

The righteous Branch mentioned here in Jeremiah did indeed spring up from David. The great, promised King did come. He is the Prophet of prophets and the Priest of priests. Yet he didn’t come like we thought he would—he didn’t destroy, he didn’t end it all, nor did he build heaven on earth. He didn’t vindicate just one nation from just one circumstance in just one time—his mission extended much further and deeper than that. Jesus came as the Savior of all humanity—he came, he comes and will come again to save humanity from its worst ruler—ourselves. He came as a baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, he comes now through the Spirit, and one day he will come again bodily to earth in tremendous power and mercy.

These “comings” (advent) of the eternal Son of God become human—is our hope within hope. We have hope today because we have the ultimate hope for the ultimate tomorrow. Spoiler alert: The good guys win!

We can live in hope because we live in capital H—HOPE. All we have now, no matter how good, is not as good as it gets. Conversely, all the bad we’ve experience now is not life’s final answer, it does not define us:

  • The parent who mistreated or ignored you does not establish your identity. Because of the advent of Jesus, you are the chosen child of God who God has loved since before the world began.
  • The job you lost did not define you—your identity didn’t disappear when your job did. You are called of God to participate in the spread of his kingdom today and to worship forever in the courts of the King.
  • The lover who never came, or the one who broke your heart, did not define you forever as lonely or rejected. You are the beloved of God, the bride of Christ, pursued forever by the great romantic.
  • The sickness or accident, or the aging that destroyed your body, does not define you. You are the dancer, the beautiful creation of God who will forever walk upright in the Lord’s presence, and by his side.

But how does having this identity and the hope it brings change our everyday lives? The answer is that the God who is the Source of our hope is the ultimate and final word on us and our circumstances. Knowing that, trusting in that, changes every moment in our lives today.

Praise God, the shoot did come up from Jesse—the branch did come out of Nazareth. Jesus did come, he is coming now, and will come again. Let us live our lives in the light of that truth: Hope in season. Hope in action. Hope within hope.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • This week’s sermon compared the prophecies about Jesus to the introduction of a rock star at a concert, but one that takes centuries to complete. Have you ever been to a concert or performance of a major star? How was this person introduced?
  • Jeremiah saw hope as something vital to survival. Do we see hope that way? He acted within the backdrop of believing that God’s favor would return to Israel (“Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah 32:15). What does it mean to live our lives with hope as the backdrop, knowing that each season of loss will lead to a season of blessing?
  • Jeremiah lived hope in action, as we see in him buying the field at Anathoth (chapter 32), even though the land was soon to be decimated by Babylon. What hopeful action can we take in our lives as God’s fully-loved people? What actions in our lives show that we are people of hope?
  • How do we balance hope and wisdom? Jesus encouraged us to be “wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). He doesn’t want us to be foolhardy, but yet he wants us to live with a supernatural trust—how do we hold these two realities together?
  • This week’s sermon showed the prophets as vital to the Advent story, though just out of the picture frame. Are there are other “Advent co-stars” you can think of? What can we learn from them? (e.g.: Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Zachariah).