The First Christmas Carols: Magnificat

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Luke 1:46-55 ESV

“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.””

Today’s carol title, “Magnificat,” is the same title as the song-like prayer that Mary offers God when Elizabeth prophesies over her. The Latin word means ‘magnify’. Most of us are thinking of a big magnifying glass right now. And really, thats not far off.

To set it up, Mary has her faith deepened by Elizabeth, as the words spoken over her by her elder cousin enlighten Mary’s situation. Mary’s response could have been anything, as she wrestled with this awesome responsibility of having a child that would be divine. But Mary’s response was one of worship. So I want to confess something: I’m so jealous.

A situation that should have caused worry and panic caused Mary to reach out to God in astounding ways. She turns to God and magnifies Him in prayer and praise. She enlarges God in the midst of her circumstances, calling forward His mighty deeds from the past and makes those past deeds her current reality. For Mary, God is a number of things, rather than was something in the past.

It is in recalling the glory and deeds of God that Mary is able to function well in her faith. She knows who she is serving and who it is that is calling her to this new, mysterious, and awesome thing. She enlarges God, brings Him into focus, and exposes her fear to God’s overwhelming faithfulness.

So this morning is about ‘response’. How do we respond to crisis? How do we respond to worry? How do we respond to the bland, everyday, and mediocre? How do we respond to the good, exciting, and pleasant things?

Make it even more personal. Do I magnify God in order to bring things into perspective, or do I shrink God down to someone unrecognizable, or even place Him outside the picture or circumstance I’m in?

All valid questions. It boils down to response. About 17 years ago, I got in a van with 8 other people and we all headed down from Young Harris College to Northpoint Church for 722. Louie Giglio was preaching the Tuesday night college-age gatherings, and we were in the mood for a good Christ-centered road trip.

I’ll never forget something he said that night. As he talked about the will of God, he said to us, “There is nothing in this world that you have control over except one thing—your response.” It was timely, because time was running out for me to choose where I would spend my next two years in college. I was worried sick about what I would do, mostly because I had been accepted at a number of schools, but none of them were close enough for me to do youth ministry in the area I felt called to serve, and none of them gave me the proximity to home so I could care for aging family.

Worry was my response. Anxiety was my response. I was bothered. God seemed distant, small, and uninvolved. Then, I broke down. The weight of it all crushed my spirit. In the background that morning was music from my playlist. A song came on that turned it around for me. It was the song “Calmer of the Storm” by the band Downhere. Here’s the lyric that magnified God for me:

There on the storm, teach me God to understand

Of your Will that I just cannot control

There may I see all your love protecting me

I thank you Lord, you are the calmer of the storm.

There on the storm—in the midst of the chaos, of the turmoil, of the uncertainty, the writer asks God to teach him. He magnified God. He chose to reach out to God. His response was worship. As the song finished, I prayed. I calmed, received a strange peace, and the phone rang. It was the school that was only two and a half hours away. I had been accepted. Yes, I went there, and was able to line up the youth ministry job I wanted so bad and was able to care for my great-grandmother in her dying days.

If you read Mary’s prayer, you see that she better understood her calling and mission because she magnified the Lord. When she brought Him close, she was able to witness to His great deeds and His mighty power. Those same deeds and that mighty power was alive in her because she chose to worship.

Like Mary, we can magnify the Lord. We can chose to respond in worship and in praise. Like the song I mentioned, we can call out from the chaos, from the storm, and we can worship the Lord.

Can I confess something? I need to do that right now. My grandmother fell last night, breaking her hip and both legs. She has a number of existing health issues to go along with all of that. I’m worried. I’m scared. And so I need to magnify the Lord, I need to bring Him close, I need to call out from the storm. I need to the Lord to teach me about His will, about His compassion, about His peace, about His strength, about His patience, about His endurance. All of things things can be mine, but I have to put myself in a posture of receiving.

How will you do that today? Will you respond in worship? Will you learn from the Scriptures, from prayer, from fellowship, from song, from service? Will you magnify Him today? Will you respond in worship, no matter your circumstances? Your situation can be good or it can be frightening, but the response is the same—worship. Amen.

The First Christmas Carols: Ave Maria

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Luke 1:26-28, 39-42 ESV

[26] In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, [27] to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. [28] And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

[39] In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, [40] and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. [41] And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, [42] and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

Today’s carol is a familiar one globally. Anyone in the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran traditions have heard this song at some point. If you’ve been to a Catholic wedding or funeral, it pops up from time to time. But the basis of the song extends beyond its musical beauty or even its deep meaning as a prayer.

The first two sections of the lyrics are found in our text today. We’ll look at the Luke sections for our purposes, as the third component of the text is from the gospel of John.

The first section represents the awe-inspiring moment, when, Mary is approached by the angel, Gabriel. He says, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” This moment is so much bigger than it sounds. To really picture it, think of it like this: God has looked down on the earth. What He sees is a world in turmoil, a creation in chaos, and a solution for it all. And so He sends a messenger, an angel, who leaves the throne room of Heaven and travels to find a young girl, engaged to be married, living in a small town.

In the angel’s message is the hope of all humankind—past, present, and future. When the angel Gabriel stands before Mary, the entire fabric of all that has ever been, is, or ever will be, will change the moment he appears. And so he appears, he approaches, he speaks, and his first words, after having just left the company of Heaven is, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

Do you hear what she heard, the magnitude of the message? You are favored, you are loved, you are blessed. She heard that the Lord is with her, that in the midst of her life, whatever has been, whatever is going on now, and whatever is to come after this glorious moment, the Lord is with her. He is setting her up for comfort and for relationship. God will be her God and be so in a way she has yet to know. The only way she will be able to understand it is in the prayer she prays afterwards, but that is next week’s message.

Now, lets skip ahead, and we now find Mary going to spend time with her cousin, Elizabeth. We learn that Elizabeth is with child, the child being John the baptizer. She has prayed for a child and had yet to be able to get pregnant. But an angel appears to her husband, a priest, and says that the Lord has heard Elizabeth’s prayer. This child would be a true prophet, turning many people’s hearts to God.

My favorite moment in all this is when Mary speaks, and at the sound of her voice, John (in the womb) jumps! Elizabeth knew that Mary was favored. She says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Can you imagine the fear that Elizabeth might have just eliminated in Mary (if she had any), when she affirms the presence of God within her, and confirms the message of the angel? And sweet Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, as the text tells us, says all this with a shout.

These moments, they are real, they are precious, and they are all for us. We have in this scripture, in this song that you heard a bit ago, in the prayer that our Catholic family shares, the witness of both Heaven and Earth declaring the Lordship of Jesus. Both the natural and the supernatural recognizing God’s favor on Mary and God’s presence in the baby that will be born.

God has chosen to use the image of the everyday in order to remind us every day of His presence and power. The Holy has chosen to dwell among the unholy, and call it up to glory. And Christmas is about exactly that. An ordinary girl, a nervous fiancé, and a child with a future that is yet to be seen. It is so normal, it is so familiar, and it is the way God has chosen to be on display.

May we look to this holy family this Christmas, to something we can all see and touch and understand and see that God’s salvation is being worked out in the ordinary. May we let God touch our souls in deeper ways that before. May we see our salvation in Mary’s womb and experience redemption through the child she offers to the world. Amen.

The First Christmas Carols: Go Tell it on the Mountain

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Luke 2:8–11, 16–18 ESV

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

You already know what we want to tell you today; that you are to go and tell the good news of God’s saving grace to the world. We have this message that runs against the grain of almost all logic; that no matter what you’ve done you are forgiven, and that through that forgiveness you can go and live a life of victory over a sin-filled past and present.

That just doesn’t add up for most people. But then there are those who have that reality living inside them. They have experienced it, in their minds and in their hearts, and they want to see other people experience this grace, too. But in order to do that, we have to go and tell the world of Jesus and His love.

For the shepherds who heard the angel’s announcement, they were frightened. For a Jewish person, the appearance of an angel meant Divine judgment. But instead, this angel brings peace, not fear. He brings good news and joy, rather than a verdict and a sentence. On this night, it is all about mercy, all about hope. Something different was happening, a new thing that had new consequences and new outcomes.

The challenge for us today is whether or not this Christmas will be just like other Christmases we’ve had. Will it be about cookies, gifts, and lights? Or will it be about Jesus, about the worship of God and the forgiveness of sins, for you and for the world?

The shepherds left to go see this thing that had happened (v15) and the text says they left in a hurry. They didn’t wait, they didn’t trifle; they made a beeline for Bethlehem, to find the Child, the Savior. For them, it was worth following through in order to have their own faith confirmed.

When they got there and saw it all to be true, they told their story and it amazed those who heard it. I want you to think for a minute about the good that happened through the sharing of their experience, through their going and telling; how it affected those around them and how it impacted Mary and Joseph.

Everyone likes good news. We long for either something that takes our mind off our troubles or something that fills in the empty places in our hearts. For those around Mary and Joseph that night, they longed to hear of a Savior, who would bring hope to the world they were living in. They longed for change of both circumstances and surroundings. Talk of a new king, a new reality that was better than their current one was music to their ears. They were primed and ready for such news. This is good news.

Now think of Mary and Joseph, about what they needed to hear. These shepherds, in one fell swoop took away the anxiety and fear that they had been operating under all this time. Mary, visited by an angel, now with child supernaturally. Joseph, given dreams and visions, while caring for a child that is not actually his. This couple, they needed this news. They need their hope confirmed. They were waiting for some kind of affirmation after having gone the distance and come to his place. And now the child is here, people have gathered, others are bearing witness to His identity, angels are announcing His coming. This is real. This is happening.

They further embraced their lives because the shepherds accepted the call to go and tell. They traveled, they shared, and the world was better because of it. All because they received the message given to them and they were bold enough to tell their story. Some of you are catching on, seeing how this applies to you. But I’ll ask you, is this real, for you? Is this happening, in you?

God has come to be with His people, to save them from their sins…their sins. Our sins. Your sins and my sins. And then, when we have welcomed Christ into our hearts, when we’ve let grace overpower our selfish wills and let God transform our desires, oh, do we have a story to tell! Because, you see, the story continues.

The story that you and I have to tell this world around us is deeper than what they shepherds heard. We are living on the other side of Jesus’ nativity. We are living on the other side of Jesus’ crucifixion. We are living on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection. We live—now, today—on the advent of an even greater coming, an even more exciting announcement. That, Jesus has ransomed us from our sins, His work is done, and He is coming for us.

And so, we go and tell it, over the hills and everywhere. Tell the world that Jesus has come and is coming. Tell your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends. Pray for the boldness to tell the stranger, the enemy, the helpless and hopeless. Jesus Christ is born. Amen.

ONE GOT SAVED

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Luke 17:11-17 ESV

“On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.””

Are you ready for Christmas? I’m not saying it has to start tomorrow, because some of you are already rolling your eyes at those folks who are playing Christmas music. But it won’t come fast enough for me for several reasons, one of them being that my birthday is on Christmas. For most folks, they get the joy of having a birthday party and opening presents, and then they get to do it all over again at Christmas time. I have to wait ALL YEAR for the birthday part and then it gets lumped in with Christmas. But its ok, because I get double on that day, so when the rest of you are done opening gifts, I’m still going!

Now that I’m an adult, its not really about presents or opening things. It’s about what comes from spending time with my family, eating a meal at a restaurant that I get to pick, and usually a place we’ve been saving up to go to. Its about the joy of togetherness, of fellowship and sharing a certain spirit.

When I was a kid, Christmas was a big deal. The older members of the family would make all the calls and get together an obscene number of people. The basement or living room of the lucky person who got to host that year would be wall to wall. There were kids everywhere and the energy was electric.

But thinking back on it, it was almost like it was more about the older members than the children. There were a lot of grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, who would sit back and take it all in. They were watching us. And the highlight of our time together was when their gift was about to be opened by one of the children.

The child would grab the gift with excitement, tear into the paper, open it up, show it to the world and then run off to play with it in a far away corner. That’s when the parents would stop the child, call them back, and say, “Go hug her neck. Tell her thank you.” That was the common way to say it in our family.

It was amazing to watch the person’s face who’s neck was being hugged. The child would throw their arms around the persons neck and squeeze, while the older folk would close their eyes together and smile during the embrace.

For the parents, it was always an opportunity to teach the children about gratitude. The gift was great, but the giver was the source of the gift. To show love and appreciation toward the giver was the proper response. The children had to be reminded of that. And as us children got older, we cared less and less about the gifts and just enjoyed spending time with the giver. The relationship became the driving source of joy. We would return again and again to seek the embrace and the experience of being with those loved ones who provided so much love.

In our text today, we have lepers who receive a gift. All ten suffered from leprosy. Their condition relegated them to the outskirts of their communities. They lost all social engagement, privilege, and status. As Jesus was slowly making His way to Jerusalem, he was walking the border between Galilee and Samaria, two areas that didn’t get along very well. The band of ten were caught between two societies that didn’t accept each other very well and wouldn’t accept the ten who, by custom, were to remain at a distance because of their condition.

They cry out to Jesus for a compassionate work, a work of mercy, and He tells them to go show themselves to the priest. Only a priest could examine them and deem them safe and ready to re-enter society. This would be restoration of their place and role in the community. They did as Jesus asked, without hesitation, and they were healed. Their disease was gone.

This is where the story gets interesting. Nine of the ten walked on to the priest to have their role in society restored. But one turned back, and it says that he saw that he was healed. The one recognized that he had been made well. Rather than going straight to the priest to have his healing made official, he turns back and runs to Jesus. The text says he praises God, falls on his face before Jesus, and gives Him thanks.

The one came back to squeeze His neck. What separated the one from the nine was the gratitude toward the giver. And the other nine are not off the hook. The implication of the one being identified as a Samaritan means that the other nine were most likely Jews, and they should have known better.

The nine would go and have their healing certified. Ultimately, they were choosing to return to their former way of living. But the one would turn to a new way of life, a life changed by Jesus, a life centered on Jesus.

The expectation of Jesus is that we would be a people who give thanks to Him. For it is in giving thanks to God that we know we are right with God. Jesus says to the one, “Your faith has made you well.” The original meaning of the word ‘well’ is ‘saved’. It was more than just his leprosy that was healed. It was more than just his place in society that was restored. The one was saved; he was made right with God. He did not put his stock in the gift but in the giver. The one now had a source of praise, of living, of genuine purpose. His life was changed beyond not being sick anymore. This was eternity at work in the temporal. This was the kingdom of God breaking into the kingdom of this world.

Every day, we are faced with the choice of either enjoying our lives or enjoying the One who gives us life. The blessings that we have come from God, and when we find our source of life in Jesus we receive something so much more than just a blessing. We receive salvation. There is a wholeness in salvation that surpasses what the world can offer. The wholeness, the wellness that God brings is having the kingdom of God at work in your life. You’re experiencing heavenly life in the midst of your earthly one.

When was the last time you squeezed the neck of God? Can you hear the Holy Spirit prompting you to run and thank Him in such a way? When was the last time you truly praised God’s name, maybe even with a loud voice like the Samaritan leper? The tense question is, how often do you run to God and throw your arms around his neck to say “thanks?”

The challenge for us today, is to walk away from here knowing that we belong at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Look for the many, many different ways you can return to Him and be thankful. And like the relationship that grows with those old givers in your life, may you find joy and peace and wholeness in the love of God through Jesus Christ. You are the one he has saved, so let us return and give thanks. Amen.

WHAT WE’RE FIGHTING FOR

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1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18 ESV

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from Forrest Gump, when Forrest goes back again and again and again to find his fallen brothers in the battlefield. Forrest leaves the safety of the landing zone, runs back into the gunfire and explosions of the enemy, grabs a wounded man, throws him over his shoulder, returns to safety, only to leave it again to find another man.

The one who defied death, Forrest Gump, brought with him those who were knocked down.

This is what Paul is trying to tell the young Gentile believers in Thessalonica. They were infants in their faith and had once believed as the pagan world around them that there was no life after death, that when you died it was simply darkness. They were worried about those who had perished, especially those who died under persecution.

Paul hears of their suffering, of their worry, and in this letter is writing them to let them know something he didn’t have time to teach them fully about their faith. This Jesus whom they believe is the One who has defied death. Through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus has solidified His place as Lord and King.

Paul then tells them that Jesus will return and when He does He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. Now here is where some cultural cues need to be explained. First, in the Greek culture, to fall asleep was another way of saying someone had died. Second, for Jesus to return at a shout and a trumpet call is to say He is royalty and returning home. Third, to meet Jesus in the air is to go outside the gates as a greeting party in order to welcome the ruler home and then fall in line behind the train of victors in order to restore the royalty’s rightful rule.

Basically, this is a fancy way of saying, “When Jesus comes back, He’s bringing our loved ones with Him, and we’ll run to the end of the driveway to meet them, and then come back to the house for tea and stories.” But in all seriousness, Paul is both teaching and comforting the believers in Thessalonica in the same breath. He is proud of their faith, but because he had to leave them before they were fully grounded, he has written them and sent Timothy to instruct them.

Like the image of Forrest Gump and the reality of Jesus being our risen Lord, it is important that we recognize the sacrifice of our many veterans who have served this country and its people with a life-on-the-line duty. As Christians, the hope is that each of us would be enlisted and employed in the Lord’s service to win souls for the kingdom of God. This is truly what we’re fighting for by believing in Jesus Christ and His defeat over death. It is through the work of Jesus Christ in His church that the victory train at His return will be long and full, made up of the faithful who have fallen asleep, but will be awakened, raised from the dead, and will join Him in His reign forever. We who may be here when that day comes, will be gathered together with them.

These are not strange and far-fetched Christian beliefs. These are the implications of believing in Jesus Christ, the reality of trusting the Resurrected Lord as your Savior. For us to place our hope in the One who defeated death, is to be grafted into His life. Listen to what Paul says later to the Christians in Rome, Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Verse 5, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” Jesus went back into the jaws of death and brought us out, like the many veterans who have laid their lives on the line for us. Praise be to God for His precious Son, who fought for us as He did. This is what we are fighting for, what we are believing for, for life everlasting for any and all who would believe in Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY: DISAPPEARING INTO THE MISSION

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REVELATION 7:9-17 ESV

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.””

Our text this morning has the ability to hit each of us in a different way. Rarely do I read Revelation and it not cause a sense of awe in my soul. What John was privileged to see should deepen our faith, as the Holy Spirit ushered him into the presence of Jesus and the throne room of God.

John has just witnessed a playing out of both history and future events, seeing both the awesome and the terrible at the same time. Suddenly, he turns and sees a great sea of people from every corner of the earth. The people are worshipping, praising God, shouting and waving palm branches. At this, those around the throne of God fell in adoration and worship. These people are testifying. They are the ones the world took life from and Jesus gave life to. They are a clean people, a washed people, all because they chose to follow Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

What I find so interesting about this text is that one of the holy elders near the throne of God, looks to John and asks him if he knows who they are. Because he doesn’t, he looks at this exalted being and essentially says, “No, but you know.” I want to stop right there and spend some time on that moment.

Catholic Evangelist, Fr. Steve Grunow has a great line in an article he wrote called “YOU WERE CHOSEN TO BE A SAINT,” where he says,

“Most saints disappear into the mission of the Church. In heaven, we will know the profound impact thousands of hidden Saints had on our lives, but here on earth, as I said, most of the Saints move about and work among us, and do so for the most part unnoticed and unseen.”

I love this quote because it reminds me of the countless people who have gone on to be with Jesus Christ, fighting the good fight. Whether they died a martyr or a faithful disciple, it matters not.

Like those in the text, they have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb, and they join the countless multitude of believers who disappeared into the mission of the Church. In the end, our witness is ALWAYS about Jesus Christ being made known. It is through us that Jesus Christ is magnified, revealed, and made plain to people who have yet to see Him and accept His grace.

Like Fr. Grunow alludes to, there is an ordinariness about the call to saintliness. We should never be afraid of the word ‘saint’. Theologian Frederick Buechner makes the point well in a write-up I want to share with you.

In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.

Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am foremost among sinners”( 1 Timothy 1:15) …

In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now,” that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.

The Holy Spirit has been called “the Lord, the giver of life” and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.

Article can be found here

Buechner captures is perfectly, helping us see that saintliness is faithfulness. I want you to shout something out for me. Tell us all who the ordinary faithful were that you hold dear in your heart, who showed you Jesus through their simplicity and their faithfulness.

You want to know the saints who come to the forefront of my mind when I think about the ones God is most pleased with? Its a kind of person; those people who don’t second guess God’s love and faithfulness toward them. They reveal God’s holy stubbornness through the way they hold firm to hope and God’s promises. It speaks volumes to me because I, to this day, still pray that God will make me steadfast.

“Most saints will disappear into the mission of the Church.” Thats what I want us to take away from today. Live your life for Jesus Christ in such a way that you fade into the background and Jesus is moved into the foreground. Let the saving love, the transforming mission of Christ Jesus take the limelight, as you fade into plans of God to change the world. Amen.

FAITH AS WESLEY LIVED IT: PERFECTED IN LOVE

SERMON AUDIO

JAMES 2:14–17 ESV

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

We’re almost done with our emphasis on the life and ministry of John Wesley. Today we look at sanctification, which is the work of grace that sets us apart for God and aside for ministry. God is making us holy and it is holiness that allows God to use our faith to bring hope to others.

Our text from James this morning is clear in its definition of what genuine faith looks like. To be blunt, if works do not accompany faith, then faith is dead. I’ve always said it like this, works are a natural consequence of faith.

Friday night, my daughters and I hosted eight people over night in our home, all while Ashley was away on the Walk to Emmaus retreat (I’m crazy,I know). Rev. Larry Vinson, his wife Heather, and their 6 children were coming from vacation and headed back to Indiana. Larry and I are in the same doctoral program through Wesley Seminary.

Larry and Heather and I sat up after the kids went to bed and talked ministry into the late hours of the night. When I told him what I was preaching on, Larry provided great insight into James 2. He said this:

“When I was overseas, we were trained to know our job so well that we became unconsciously competent. Unconsciously competent meaning that we should know our job well enough that we could do it without thinking, even in our sleep if we had too. We should become unconsciously competent when it comes to our faith. In other words, our works that demonstrate our faith should be as natural as breathing.“

Ministry for Christians should be as natural as breathing. I love that. If we truly trust in Jesus Christ, then there is a genuine change that has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen in our lives. Grace is transformative by nature. So where we once tended only to ourselves, so now we tend to the things of God, which are personal devotion and outward ministry. Works are natural.

The James text testifies that there are those who think their faith is only a matter of believing in a truth. There are others who believe that they just simply need to do good things. But for those who have welcomed Jesus into their hearts and fully trust in His grace, they have a welling up within them that can’t wait to get out. In fact, you could say that the works they do for Christ Jesus are a kind of eruption that takes place.

God’s desire is to put a love within us that is divine. For a divine love to move into a human space means that change is inevitable. When we look back at what John Wesley was trying to achieve in the early parts of his spiritual life, we see that he had a mere intellectual faith. He was ascribing to a truth. He founded his life on that truth, but he had yet to let that seed of truth drop from the branches of his belief and down into the soil of his soul.

Once Wesley began to trust in God for all things, there was an eruption of power and presence in both his personal devotion and his social witness. John’s personal devotion drew him closer to God. John’s social ministry began to bear fruit. Now Wesley had an authentic faith that led to an authentic witness. The power within moved outward. It has no other place to go. And as the power and love of God erupted outward, it created a firm foundation of faith for others to stand on.

I want to use an image this morning. My girls are in a phase where they are fascinated by lava (don’t ask). Check this out…

LAVA CLIP

Now, lava stirs beneath the surface, building up heat and energy, and once it reaches a certain point it explodes and erupts out, above the surface, and flows outward. That lava makes its ways into places that are low and need to be filled and as it stops and fills and cools, it becomes hard. This is how much of the land we walk on was formed.

Look at how genuine faith spills out because of all that is stored up within. We have the life-changing, soul-shaping grace that is ours through faith and trust, and it can’t wait to get out. And so it gathers and builds up like a powerful fire and spews forth grace into the world. Through the faith of God’s children, we make land for others to stand on; we give them hope and a place to call home amidst the chaos of life.

The lava can’t help but flow. This is what it does. We can’t help but have compassion; we can’t help but show mercy; and walking humbly with our God is natural and right (Micah 6:8). Faith without works is no faith at all. Because for Christians, our works are as natural as breathing. And that naturalness is what John Wesley referred to as Christian Perfection, meaning, that God is perfecting His love within you, making it so that it is Jesus who is living in you and loving through you, for the redemption of the world.

And so we worship, drawing closer to God, and experiencing the fire of His love inside of us. And we work, not with our own efforts, but out of the overflow of transforming grace, bringing others to faith in Christ Jesus.

So, let Jesus build up within your heart. Let the fire of His love change and transform you. Then let the grace of God that has given you life erupt into the lives around you. Let it flow, like a river of mercy, for the whole world to see. Amen.

FAITH AS WESLEY LIVED IT: PREACHING AND PURSUING GRACE

CLICK HERE FOR SERMON AUDIO

EPHESIANS 2:8-10 ESV

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

We’ve been through a lot with John Wesley, and honestly we hope that many of you feel a lot more “Methodist” than you did before. But, you are at a Methodist Church and we wouldn’t exist if we didn’t believe that this is a most excellent way of pursing Jesus Christ.

But for all our talk of pursing Christ, we base our faith on the truth that God is the one in pursuit of us. One of John Wesley’s greatest contributions to theology was his articulation of the nature of God’s grace. Wesley preached that God’s grace pursues us, justifies us, and transforms us.

Wesley referred to grace’s pursuit of God’s beloved as “prevenient grace,” meaning that God’s unearned love for us exists before we know it or accept it, wooing us to Christ. Then, once we receive God’s grace and understand its affects we are justified in heart and mind, coming to believe for ourselves that Jesus is the Son of God, the One who ransoms us from sin and death and saves us to God. Finally, with this change of heart and mind, we then journey with grace on a path of transformation, whereby we are made holy through our relationship with the Holy Spirit. We call that sanctification or holiness.

And all of that is Wesleyan-Methodist holiness in a nutshell. But to illustrate, I want to show you a clip from a popular movie, Les Miserables. Many of you may have seen the musical, whether on stage or on screen. But the original novel, written by Victor Hugo, is absolutely fascinating, being an in-depth look at redemption during 19th century France. The book is packed with Hugo’s issue with the social and religious issues of his day. For 1,500 pages, he pens the need for social reform and the need for religious depth. Hugo cared about the poor and this work is his contribution to that passion.

What you are about to see is a man named Jean Valjean, a convict who can’t shake his criminal past. He is offered a place to stay and food to eat by a local bishop. Early in the morning, we find Valjean doing this…

CLIP

Jean Valjean finds that he cannot earn grace. Grace is given. He has tried to fix his life over and over again and it doesn’t work. It is only by the grace of God that the Bishop offers that he is forgiven and set on a new path. Jean will then use his gratitude toward God’s grace as his life’s currency from this point forward. Listen to the words of the actual novel by Victor Hugo:

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice: “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

We need more people who will offer God’s grace to the world. Like the Bishop, we need to purchase people’s attention through God’s work in us, then let the Blood of Jesus Christ be applied to their lives through faith.

John Wesley thought he was offering grace to the world. But he was only reaching a small amount through the lofty pulpits of the Church of England of his day. When he met George Whitefield, a man he groomed and discipled at Oxford, things changed. Whitefield had taken his preaching to the streets, literally. Thousands of farmers, miners, and laborers were listening to the gospel, making decisions for faith, and Wesley wanted in. After experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in such a way, Wesley would write in his journal over the next several days:

I left London and… in the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church… [the next day] At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking…to about three thousand people.”

Wesley’s word “vile” is in reference to his stepping outside the walls of the church and reaching a crowd that was traditionally looked down upon. In other words, his ministry would be to the Jean Valjean’s of the world. Wesley would now spend the rest of his ministry among all people, especially the poor. He would focus on bringing salvation to anyone, at any cost.

That same attitude is reflected in a prayer that was adapted by Wesley for use in a service of re-commitment. Wesley was asking for all Christians to be employed by God for the transformation of the world. And so this is what makes us Methodist, a lay led movement of Jesus-centered, Biblically holy, preaching, singing people who tell of the glory of God through their lives.

In your bulletin this morning, there’s a card with the covenant prayer on it. I want us to say it together. Follow my cadence and let’s affirm this loudly and with confidence:

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

I am no longer my own,

but yours. 

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,

or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly

yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

FAITH AS WESLEY LIVED IT: A LONGING FOR HOLINESS

Click here to listen to Sunday’s sermons by both myself and Rev. Derek Porter, our Senior Pastor at Smyrna First UMC…

1 PETER 1:13-16 ESV

13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,

16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Last week, our theme from Adam Hamilton’s book Revival! was that grace is a free gift and that holiness doesn’t come from striving. Pastor Derek and I wanted to make the point that the grace of God is something that is given, not taken. Therefore living holy for Jesus is a work that Jesus does in us first, and through that work we are enabled to live faithfully.

Now, in regards to our text today, the apostle Peter is writing to a people who are ravaged by persecution. The Roman Emperor, Nero, was actively looking for things to pin on Christians, being that they were viewed as a threat to the social, religious, and political life of Rome.

Because Christians’ feared for their lives, their hope was in the return of Jesus Christ. But to long for the return of Christ in order to save them from this present darkness, they must first be associated with Christ. To be associated with Christ is to be in right relationship with Him and that means that they must be holy. Beginning in the Old Testament, God has called people to holiness, or a ‘sacred otherness’, because it is only when the Holy God is living in them that they share in communion with Him.

Holiness means that God’s character lives within us, ruling our hearts, and then out of that holy character comes holy actions and holy activities. Now holiness is not boring, stiff behavior. There is joy in holiness; a joy that expresses itself in worship, in praise, in love, and in giving. There is peace and contentment that surpasses even the worst of circumstances.

In this case, the worst circumstances were the dreadful persecutions of the emperor Nero. The emperor had just blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome, was feeding them to wild animals for entertainment in the arena, and even putting them on crosses and lighting them on fire in his garden by night so that he could enjoy it in the evening.

Peter had every reason in the world to instruct believers to hope in Christ and be found in relationship with him. His encouragement to them is that they should long for holiness, to be associated with God in the most intimate of ways so that they would experience God in both power and peace.

John Wesley knew the joy of holy living, of a life of holiness and the importance of longing for it. During his days as a professor at Oxford, he led a small group of college students who met regularly, studying the Bible, learning the classics, and praying together often. Their structured and methodical meetings led to a term that deemed his later following and our denomination today as “Methodists.” But that methodical campus ministry led to the small group reaching out to young and old, doing ministry and visitations to people in the surrounding area, and even motivating them to put their funds together to hire a teacher to educate local children.

This wasn’t something Wesley and his students did because they needed to check off the to do’s of Christian living. This was an expression of the overflowing love that came from living in the love of Christ. They were living holy because the holy God was living in them. God was literally using them to grow in grace and care for others. This is what it means to be holy, to live a life of sacred otherness. They did what God instructed and they did it out of love in their hearts.

But the key is in recognizing that all this is possible by staying in the word of God, in prayer with one another, and in ministry to those around us. Wesley’s group wasn’t the first group to do this and neither are the Methodists of yesterday, today, or tomorrow. This was the life that came right out of the book of Acts, from the lifestyle and worship of the first apostles.

John Wesley and the early Methodists were experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit as the first apostles did. Listen to Acts 2:42-47 (ESV),

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

That is holiness!!! Sharing in life-changing fellowship with God and one another. And this should be our longing, too. We should long for this way of living, for these movements of the Holy Spirit. And a huge part of that longing comes through prayer. Are we praying for the Spirit to move? Are we praying for God to move in us? Are we asking Jesus to enter into our community and heal the brokenness that we experience every day? We need people who will live holy. We need prayer warriors. We need teachers of the Scriptures.

Hear it again, but this time, with a longing for holiness: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Long for holiness. Pray for the movement of the Holy Spirit. Stay in love with God through fellowship, worship, and study. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

FAITH AS WESLEY LIVED IT: PRECURSORS TO REVIVAL

REVELATION 2:1-5 ESV

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.

3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.

4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Pastor Derek and I have been excited to see so many take an interest in the church wide series. Many small groups and Sunday classes are reading “Revival!” by Adam Hamilton, and some are attending the Wednesday evening class and the Sunday afternoon class. The book is about what cultivated revival in both England and in the individual heart and life of John Wesley. The big takeaway is that the personal revival of Wesley led to the corporate revival of England and beyond.

Remember, that John Wesley is the founder of the Methodist movement—a group of faithful Anglican believers, from all classes, who banded together to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. The few turned into the many, and today, Methodism exists in several different denominations and has a global impact. Our greatest emphasis is on holiness of heart and life. What set Wesley and his Methodists apart from other Christians was that they believed that the perfect love of God was meant to manifest itself fully within believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, enabling Christians to live extraordinary lives of grace. Methodists are responsible for creating small groups and Sunday school, camp meetings and revivals, and we have always had an extremely strong emphasis on education.

All of this, and so much more, stemmed from the life of one man who had been a Christian all his life, but had yet to experience grace in its fullest definition. It wasn’t until Wesley was in his 30’s—after having been raised in the church, trained by his extremely disciplined mother, been to seminary, and then ordained—that he experienced grace in a transformative way.

After a few years of failed ministry in the US, Wesley wandered into a Bible study back in England, where someone was reading the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans. Luther, the one responsible for the great reformation of the Church in the 16th century, says in that write-up that God’s grace is something that God brings about in our lives, rather than something we achieve. Grace is given, rather than earned or taken.

Wesley had spent his entire life ‘working’ for the Lord, striving to achieve the things the Scriptures taught and revealed. But when Wesley began to trust in God’s work alone, rather than his own efforts, his heart was stricken with a warmth that brought him the freedom to believe, to truly trust in God’s grace rather than manufacture it through a try-hard-life.

Wesley learned of the liberating presence of God in that moment. The conditions of his life are what led to such an understanding and acceptance. No longer did he need to earn the Lord’s favor in order to feel forgiven. Now, he was free to work for the Lord out of the joy he had in knowing that God had forgiven him and loved him. God’s forgiveness of Wesley’s sins was now a fact, a fact that he could stake his life and soul on.

All the while, England was burdened—weighed down by many societal cares and moral failures. Wesley’s culture needed the same liberation that he had experienced in his own heart. The conditions were perfect for revival, for renewal, because there was a withering that had taken place, and Wesley was fired up and ready to water the entire country with the grace of God.

Some great questions to consider at this point are: what are the conditions of my life? Do I need a redefining of grace in my life? Have I spent my entire life believing in God but not trusting God? Am I burdened by all I think I am supposed to be doing for God, but getting very little out of all my trying?

This is where our Scripture for this morning is so important. It speaks directly to the try-hard-life. Jesus speaks to the church in Ephesus, telling them that they have tried very hard and lived very well. Their theology is right. They have followed all the rules and regulations to the ‘T’. But something is missing. They are missing the reason behind it all, the cause of having their faith-house in order. They have forgotten their first love, the thing that all their ‘trying’ is built upon. Love; love for the people that Jesus gave His life for.

Like Wesley, the Ephesian church was doing all the right things but they were forgetting that everything they were to do was based in what God had done. He gave Himself for others. God was graceful, offering His life to save souls and offering His power to transform them into holy people.

Wesley was frustrated. Ephesus was frustrated. Many of us are sitting in here today, and deep down we’re frustrated. Maybe we don’t really believe the things that come from this pulpit or from the Scriptures. Maybe we believe in the truth of the Gospel but we don’t yet fully trust it completely.

If this is the case, then we want to call on you to rest in the fact, in the reality that Jesus has died for you, and for me, and for them; and that fact, that reality seeks to liberate you from trying and trying and trying and coming up short. Jesus wants to take away your frustration; your doubt; your fear; even your efforts.

Hear Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:28-30 ESV).

John Wesley had to unlearn what he had learned. John had to trust in God’s wisdom, in God’s efforts on John’s behalf. The Ephesian Church had to unlearn what they had learned. They had to stop judging people without caring for them. Both John Wesley and the Ephesians needed grace, for their own hearts and for the people they were to serve.

Do you need grace today? I hope it has been redefined for you, that you see and know that God has worked and is still working on your behalf. Do you believe in God’s grace but are failing to trust it? I hope that you will rest in grace today, letting Jesus’ work on the cross effect your soul, rather than you trying to manufacture your faith. Let God work in you. Let God do the work, and when He does, you will work for joy, knowing that He has empowered you with a holy and perfect love. Amen.