TWO WORDS

MATTHEW 28:1—10 ESV

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.

6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

We talk a lot here about the brokenness and the scars of this world. Its at the core of our theology as Christians, that our world is fallen and in need of redemption by Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. And so with that, we can safely say that this world teaches that we live and we die. All of our worldly experience is a moving from life to death. And so we live it up, trying so hard to immortalize ourselves and our experiences.

But God…God, our gracious Maker, our redeeming Savior, our stalwart Guide…tells us, shows us, and leads us from life, to death, to life. We are Christians, people who believe in abundant life.

Because the world stops at death in its experience, it can’t offer abundant life. It can only offer abundance. And then it all goes away. But Jesus shows us that God opens the door to more. One of my favorite phrases is ‘made for more’. And I want you to walk away with that today, at the very least.

There’s two words that are important to us today. The words are LIFE and FREEDOM. But first, I want to set it up, so let me illustrate.

I believe that the famous, classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the greatest cinematic stories of all time. Have you ever broken down the story and considered what it reveals on a deeper level? A Midwest girl, living in a boring black-and-white world, is longing for something more. The brilliant rainbows of the Kansas skyline tell her that there is something on the other side of her unfulfilling life. Is Dorothy lacking? No, as she has all the necessary things for general happiness and opportunity. But there’s a hole in her heart and she knows it.

SLIDE 1—She sings a song many of you know, called “Over the Rainbow.” The song is lovely, but almost haunting, as she’s reaching out. The song reflects her desire for a something more.

SLIDE 2—Then, in a swirl of events, Dorothy is cast into a far away land that is filled with color, wonder, and possibility. Through her journey, she learns more and more about herself and how to view the world. She is given joy and its that joy that she brings back home when she finally returns.

SLIDE 3—For me, the last seen is the best because its the moment she realizes, because of her new found joy, that there’s no place like home. She couldn’t say that before, when she was distracted and empty. But now that she’s been filled, there’s a new life that has been resurrected in her. She has a new life about her and everything is richer.

Our first word this morning is LIFE. The women who went to the grave to finish burying Jesus went with no expectation of anything out of the normal. Why would they? Jesus has died; He was alive and now He isn’t. What is shocking for them is to find that death didn’t have the final say. Until this point, everyone knew that life led to death. But not today.

The resurrection of Jesus redefines life. There is no more life and then death. There is a new progression. There is life and death and then life again. Jesus revealed this when He said in the Gospel of John (10:10), “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” The women who came to the tomb that day were shown a new reality, ushered in by the power and graciousness of God. Jesus was alive and so would they be from this point onward.

Welcoming Jesus into our lives means that we no longer live for this world or for the shortcomings it offers. God entered into the world in order to bring it something it didn’t have—abundant life. And through that abundance there is something to be experienced—a kingdom-of-Heaven quality that each of us, like the women at the tomb and even Dorothy, longs for. It’s FREEDOM. And that’s our second word.

The two Marys are now free to live, no longer bound by the finality of this life. The are free to embrace life with a joy that comes from God. Knowing that Jesus has been raised from the dead changes the way we understand life, the way we interact with it. The ministry that the two Marys and the disciples will have is no longer limited by a world that suffers from insufficiency. They can now connect to life through the Author of life. That’s freedom.

Think back to when Dorothy comes home from Oz, she is now free to live in this world in peace. She can experience abundant life and joy in a world that was once lacking in both. She’s freed from the bonds of insufficiency and the worry of going no where. She’s found new life and she’s free to experience it.

Two words: life and freedom. Jesus Christ achieves abundant life, and then gives it to us for the freedom of living abundantly. For us this morning, it’s about so much more than what’s on the other side of a rainbow. This morning, its about life defeating death and heaven coming to live freely in our hearts.

There’s a new reality: life, death, and life again. Abundant life. And its yours today. Will you receive it? Will you let the Lord give you joy for this world? Will you let Him send you back into the boring, black-and-white world with an almost unspeakable joy? He desires to awaken you today. Call out to Him and He will call you forth. Amen.

RESTORED: THE MESSAGE IN THE MESS

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MATTHEW 22:34—40 ESV

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.

35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

38 This is the great and first commandment

39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

We come to end today of our discussion about the mess of sin our lives. We’re thankful for Tom Berlin’s book RESTORED which gave us the language and perspective that we’ve used here with you. Some of our classes are still going through the book and I know they’ll benefit from all that it has taught. Today, we close with THE MESSAGE IN THE MESS.

It’s Palm Sunday, the day we commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The people cheered and shouted with joy because their hope was that God would finally put an end to their earthly troubles, their oppression by the Roman authorities. But God had other plans. It was through Jesus that God would show the world how to live. He would teach them how to survive in the midst of God’s great renewal and restoration of a broken and scarred world. God didn’t come in Jesus Christ to forsake the world or trash it. God came to clean up the mess the world was in and He would do so by saving us and sending us to help Him work.

Like the people of Jesus’ day, we can’t stand the mess and for good reasons. It destroys lives, tears apart families, and ruins plans we have for ourselves and others. And in our hatred for the mess, we long for things to change and for them to change right now. We struggle with words like wait, not yet, patience, and process.

Imagine never seeing or knowing about the great and violent trouble a caterpillar goes through in order to become a beautiful butterfly. A massive process of transformation occurs, but you miss it. You wake up one day and instead of a long, hairy caterpillar you see the butterfly. You’re awestruck and moved, but you think, “Wait! Where’d the caterpillar go? I missed it! What happened? How? Why? What was it like?” The impact isn’t near what it could have been.

There’s little to experience or deeply appreciate in the instantaneous. We take for granted the miracle and the majesty of process. Any successful business will tell you not to focus solely on the outcome but on the process. Its what gets you there that counts. Jesus rides into Jerusalem to initiate a process and its through that process that we are saved.

In our spiritual lives, we find ourselves struggling with not reaching the end result. We want the change that God wants, Jesus lived, and the Scriptures talk about, but we want them now!Do any of us feel like this…

Poor Veruca. She can’t appreciate what the geese are doing; what the Oompa Loompas are doing; what Willy Wonka is doing through this arduous process of making Chocolate for the world. She has to have it now. And in the midst of her impulse—her rush to have what she wants now—she loses it all. Even her poor father is living under the same pressure. He put her impulse above his own journey, and falls just the same.

The message in the mess is that what God is doing in our lives is a journey, a process; it is meant to take time. The Holy Spirit doesn’t microwave our spiritual formation. The fallen side of us says, “But God, I want it now!” We are impulsive, even with God.

The text you heard Kathy read has HUGE implications. The Pharisees want Jesus to answer their question so they can trap Him, so they can be justified in their desire to see Him fall, and they want that justification now. Jesus’ answer is not only clever, but has deep implications for their lives:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is not what the Pharisees want to hear. For many of us, its not what we want to hear. Jesus is saying that we have to choose, everyday, to love God, to stay in relationship with Him; that we must chose, everyday, to love our neighbor, to value you them as much as we value ourselves. This is a long process, daily showing the nature and characteristics of Jesus, and for the rest of our lives.

My most influential seminary professor at Asbury Seminary was Dr. Steve Harper, who told us with tears in his eyes in class one day, “Spiritual formation is a labor of obedience—from first day to last.” As Christians, we believe that God is 100% sovereign, reigning over this world with a guiding hand. And we also believe that we are 100% accountable, responsible for our actions and for walking in grace.

And so, in covenant with God, the One who will give us grace and empower us with His Holy Spirit, we choose (knowing it is possible with His help) to love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind, and we choose to love and value our neighbor as we do ourselves.

To love God is to choose Him above all else. To love our neighbors is to value them as we value ourselves. The message in the mess? I’ll quote Tom Berlin to close:

“If there is any message from God in the mess of life, it is this: You are deeply loved, and with God’s help you can have and become so much more than you are right now.”

RESTORATION: ADDRESS THE MESS

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LUKE 10:38–42 ESV

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.

40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things,

42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

The emphasis last week was on the seriousness behind our discipleship. Because God has gone to great lengths to snatch us from the clutches of sin and death, we too are to engage in a faith walk that takes seriously the ministry in front of us. The work that God has done is a reconciling work. Therefore, as Paul says, we have a ministry of reconciliation, too.

God draws us to Himself, then He employs us by virtue of our salvation to draw others to Him. But how do we do that? Well, we do as Jesus does and we ADDRESS THE MESS around us and show the world the presence of God within it.

Our text today tells us of a pair of sisters, Mary and Martha, who welcome Jesus into their home. One sister, Martha, busies herself with serving Jesus and we can assume anyone else who was with him, most likely the disciples. But the other sister, Mary, goes and sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to His teaching.

Martha can’t handle that Mary is sitting down with Jesus instead of helping her. She asks Jesus to tell Mary to join her but Jesus says Mary made a better choice than Martha. Why?

You may have heard the passage interpreted that Martha was the type of person who enjoyed the active life and Mary was the type that enjoyed the contemplative life. But this just isn’t the case. Scholars and historians paint a much different picture. Martha was upset with Mary because Mary crossed a line. The original audience of the gospels would have picked up on the same issue. The issue: Mary had broken the social, societal norms of how men and women behave in the household. Anglican Bishop and theologian, N. T. Wright, says this:

For a woman to settle down comfortably among the men was bordering on the scandalous. Who did she think she was? Only a shameless woman would behave in such a way. She should go back into the women’s quarters where she belonged. This wasn’t principally a matter of superiority and inferiority, though no doubt it was often perceived and articulated like that. It was a matter of what was thought of as the appropriate division between the two halves of humanity.

In the same way, to sit at the feet of the teacher was a decidedly male role. ‘Sitting at someone’s feet’ doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, dog-like adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or sports idol… To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of the rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There is no thought here of learning for learning’s sake. Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God. Jesus affirms her right to do so.”

Why is all this important? Because most likely what Mary is listening to is how Jesus is addressing the mess. You see, the larger context of this passage is Jesus has turned His ministry toward Jerusalem. All the teaching, all the preaching, all the signs and wonders, have led to this moment when He will now work His way to the very place where He will give His life in order to win back ours.

This story of Mary and Martha falls right after Jesus has sent out the 72 disciples who preached, worked miracles, and cast out demons. Can you imagine what Jesus is teaching those who are listening, and Mary gets to be one of them! She’s hearing about how the kingdom of God is moving across the face of the earth, addressing the mess and cleaning up the brokenness they all witness everyday. This is the hope of things to come and Mary wants to be a part of it. The best part is, Jesus wants Mary to be a part of it, too.

God is calling us to so much more. He is asking us to let His grace in so that it can make us bold. God gives us the courage to speak into the lives of others, calling out their hurts and fears and inviting them to let Jesus in. Like Mary, Jesus wants those around you to cross the borders of what is acceptable and unacceptable in order to find the life-changing gospel. Who is it that you need to speak to today? Is it a friend? A family member? A co-worker? A neighbor of some sort?

What word do you need to speak into the life of another to show them the gospel? What mess do you need to address? Is it your mess? Is it another’s mess? The courage is there. The healing is there. Like the 72 that Jesus sent out—the ones that Mary may have heard about when she listened to Jesus teach—there is healing and accountability that we can offer this world. This mess is not meant to get out of hand. God has come to speak to it, to give it attention. God is addressing the mess.

There are things holding some of you back today. Messes that have gone unconfessed, unaddressed. There are fights, addictions, habits, laziness, negligence, distrust, mistrust, lies and secrets—and they all are obstacles to God’s grace. Some of us have gone far too long without giving the issues in our lives attention. We have let the mess determine our joy and happiness. We’ve let the mess order us around, keep us down, make us miserable, and we’ve become disenchanted and unengaged.

And so the question remains: When will you address the mess? Will you wait? Will you let it eat you up, knock you down, or turn you away from God? Or will it be today? Will today be the day that you let God in, let the Spirit move in, or give the gift of Jesus to someone who has been desperately reaching out in the most imperfect ways? Help them! Answer them!

There is a mess to address. Now is the time to go to God. Now is the time to pray for victory, for release, for His hand to enter in. Now is the time to address the mess. Let us pray.

RESTORATION: NO MESSING AROUND

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1 CORINTHIANS 5:17–19 ESV

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;

19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

The emphasis last week was on asking the Lord to bless the mess that is our lives, but also understanding that when He blesses the mess, the grace He gives in the blessing transforms our lives. Grace is a motivating force of God, that moves our hearts for Him and for ministry. Today, we turn and look at that motivating force and see that with God’s grace there’s really NO MESSING AROUND.

The text for today is 2 Corinthians 5:17–19. The passage begins with one of Paul’s favorite words, ‘therefore’. Paul is drawing a conclusion, saying in the text that if we are in Jesus Christ—believing and trusting in Him—then we are something new. The old way of living is gone. There’s a new reality, free of fear and shame, and full of trust and righteousness.

If we really stop and look at it, its not hard to see that what God has done in our lives is extremely serious. He has looked upon the face of the earth, plumbed the depths of its brokenness and offered a solution that covers all manner of sin and evil. God is reorienting the world and He’s doing it in an extremely intimate and personal way. He is changing the human heart. But each and every human heart must trust in Him in order to initiate that transforming grace. God will not live our lives for us. He will, instead, live out His perfect will through us.

Paul calls that perfect will, that business-of-God, a ministry of reconciliation. It means that God is resolving two kinds of conflict. 1) the conflict between us and God. Without Christ in us, we stand far off from God, unable to stand with Him for eternity, a problem He desires to fix through the cross. And the other conflict is 2) between us and the life we are to live here and now through grace. It’s no surprise, when you think about it, that our minds and hearts are bent toward our own selfish desires, our own darkened understanding of things. God seeks to undo that way of living and thinking. He wants to resolve the issue, remove the conflict, and empower us to live free of fear and shame.

Jesus actually deals with this situation in a meeting with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. READ JOHN 3:1-5. Nic comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. He’s seen Jesus work and heard His message. But there’s something more that’s needed. He needs to see Him face to face. He needs to look Jesus in the eye and have words of hope spoken over him. He’s hoping Jesus isn’t messing around.

And Jesus gives him the answer, one that is seemingly hard to understand at first. The answer is wrapped up in something that is required in order to truly experience the kingdom of God. One must be born in a new way. The Greek translation in John 3:3 means simultaneously ‘born again’ and ‘born from above’. The point here is that we are made right and new through the power that comes only from above. God makes us a new creation, a redeemed person that lives differently in a world that is now different to us.

When we accept the difference God gives and live differently in the world, we enter the ministry of reconciliation. We take on the work of God in our lives. We stop messing around. To be born again, having new eyes to see and new ears to hear, means that we cannot see the world the same anymore. We understand that people are hurting and that messing around and not taking life seriously is to put peoples’ hope at stake. Eternity hangs in the balance.

Let me ask the hard question this morning: are you messing around? Have you been born again, born from above? Do you see what God sees? Do you care about what God cares about?

This church has decided not to mess around in addressing the deeper needs around us. We want to take seriously the pain that surrounds us and offer hope in new ways. We’ll be doing that through the Tillman campus in just a few short months. This week, in fact, a team from this Church is headed to Campbell High School to stand with its principal and leadership. We are seeking to be in solidarity with the students and faculty who believe that schools are targets for evil (and we ask that you will pray for us).

So…hear the good news: God has received you in Jesus Christ. That is good news because we do not deserve to have our trespasses and debts wiped away. And yet, God loves us. He has desired to bring us in, and if we will accept that grace, we can in response to it, turn and give it to others through a ministry of reconciliation.

God is not messing around. You do not send your only Begotten Son to cover the sin of the world as a lighthearted gesture. God has made a decisive and serious decision to accept the pain of loss by sending Jesus Christ to live, die, and resurrect so that we might have life and abundant life, all to be to shared with a dying world.

Souls are at stake. There’s no messing around when the prize is eternity. Will you meet us on the battlefield for souls? Will you take the love, and mercy, and grace of God seriously? Will you receive it for yourself, and then give it to those who were once where you were? Will you have a ministry of reconciliation? Let’s make that decision today.

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.