First Sunday of Advent (A)
December 3, 1995
Salvation is at Hand
Phillip Semmelweis was a physician in the mid 1800’s. He practiced medicine during the time where the best hospitals lost one out of six mothers to what they termed “childbed fever”.
A doctor’s daily schedule at the hospital began by dissecting corpses for performing autopsies. Afterwards the physician made his way to the maternity wards to examine expectant mothers without pausing to wash his hands. Dr. Semmelweis was the first doctor to associate such examinations with the resultant infection and death of the patient. His habit was to wash with a chlorine solution and then make the examination. During his eleven years he delivered over 8,500 babies, and lost 184 mothers, or about one in fifty. Far less than the one out of six his colleagues lost routinely.
He became a champion of washing the hands before examination. He lectured, debated and challenged his colleagues. Once he argued, “Puerperal fever is caused by decomposed material conveyed to a wound … I have shown how it can be prevented. I have proved all that I have said. But while we talk, talk, talk, gentlemen, women are dying. I am not asking anything world shaking. I am asking you only to wash … for God’s sake, wash your hands.”
His plea went unattended. His fellow doctors laughed in his face as they continued their deadly practice.
This first Sunday of Advent is a reminder of our desperate need of salvation accomplished as Jesus enters our lives and washes us clean. Don’t be like the countless millions that continue in the contamination of their lives … come clean with Christ. Salvation is near
A little boy had been put to bed early one night. About midnight he woke up screaming and crying. His father hurried into his bedroom and put his muscular arms around the little lad, but the shadows on the wall and the darkness of the room, kept the youngster shuddering. After talking to his son the father finally said, “I must leave you now and go back to my room. But God will watch over you. God’s right here.”
As the father was leaving the room, the boy whispered, “Dad, I want a God what’s got skin on.”
The Father understood the little boy’s request. That is precisely why He sent Jesus into the world so that mankind would have a God with skin on him. The hour has come to recognize that salvation is near. God has put on mankind’s skin the form of Jesus!
Salvation is God with us
Several years ago in a third-world country, two missionaries were trying to bring the gospel to the people. As they traveled the backroads on a December day they were held up by bandits and taken to their hideout. The men were shut in a filthy hole without fire for heat. To make matters worse, their captors ordered them not to talk or make signs to one another. Christmas came and they were still languishing in their hole. One of the missionaries sat on the floor shivering and silent. Suddenly his face lit up, for he thought of a way to communicate with his fellow missionary. Idly toying with bits of hay around him he spelled out a word on the hard-packed mud floor. With a glance of the eye he drew his friend’s attention to the word. Quickly his comrade’s face brightened with a triumphant joy. For the straws in the mud spelled out Emmanuel! Yes, they were captives of bandits. Yes, their lives were in peril of death. Yes, their prison was dirty and cold. But inwardly they exulted: God is with us everywhere and at all times! Glory to His name!
Salvation is Christ welcomed
A guest visiting in a home in Philadelphia would have his birthday during his time there. The host family discovered the happy event was approaching and so they planned to celebrate with a surprise party. They arranged lovely decorations, bought little gifts for him, and invited several guests. Finally the day came and the guests arrived. The celebration began and was going well. Finally the youngest child asked his mother, “Where is the man whose birthday it is?”
They found him upstairs in his room. They had made all the preparations, but forgot to invite him to the party!
Salvation is asking Christ to come to our spiritual birthday party as the Redeemer guest. (Derl G. Keefer)
Second Sunday of Advent (A)
December 10, 1995
By the time Isaiah prophesied, the glory days of Judah had departed. The golden age, when David and Solomon reigned, had given way to the divided kingdom — Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Isaiah was called to prophesy in the southern kingdom of Judah. In the year of Isaiah’s call King Uzziah died, bringing to an end his 52-year reign. With Uzziah’s death much of the prosperity of the eighth century B.C. also died. During Isaiah’s life and ministry, Judah was beaten on the battlefield by the coalition of Syria and Israel with the result that captives were taken away to Samaria (II Chron. 28:5-8). The Edomites and Philistines also captured many towns that had been a part of Judah (II Chron. 28:16-19). Commitment to the Lord on the part of the people of Judah waxed and waned, but mostly waned. The center of the world’s military and economic power was Assyria, not Judah or Israel. During Isaiah’s lifetime he would even prophesy the defeat and exile of Judah (Is. 39:3-8).
It is understandable, then, that Isaiah would use the word “stump” to describe Judah (v. 1). The Hebrew word translated “stump” or “stem” is the noun form of the verb which was used to refer to chopping down a tree. The glory of Judah had been cut down, and all that was left was a stump. This word was also used to describe a tree just planted and taking root. Isaiah was portraying God’s people as weak, diminutive, and unimpressive. What is a mere stump in comparison with the mighty forests of Assyria, then later Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome?
Yet this prophecy is not about weakness. It is about greatness — the greatness of the coming Messiah. Isaiah was predicting that in the fullness of time a small shoot of new growth would sprout from that old stump. The Hebrew word translated “shoot” refers to a slender and flexible twig. By the time this little twig was to appear the Roman Empire would be in full flower, and a black stump with a small green sprout was nothing in comparison with the beauty and strength of Rome. So how is it that these words are about greatness? They are about a special kind of greatness — Christmas greatness, God’s kind of greatness.
God’s kind of greatness is not packaged in the same manner as the world’s greatness. When the people of this world think of greatness they think in terms of the physical — power, wealth and beauty — but God’s greatness was expressed in Bethlehem as a tender little Baby. On the night of Jesus’ birth God did something supernatural, but He did it in the form of the simple. What appeared to be mundane was really miraculous. He was just a Baby, but He was God in human form. Mary was just a plain Palestinian teenager, but an angel had told her, “You have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30), and she was having a baby while still a virgin. They were just ordinary shepherds, but an angelic host split the Judean sky to announce to them the birth of the Savior of humankind.
God’s Christmas kind of greatness is typical of the way He works. He regularly takes what looks to be ordinary, even dreary, and makes it into something that is extraordinary and wondrous. To me that is one of the most exciting and encouraging truths in the story of Jesus’ birth. But if we’re not careful we’ll miss it. As Michael Card has said, Christmas means coming to a place where you would least expect to find anything you want, and instead finding everything you ever hoped for. Christmas greatness starts so small that most people overlook it.
What are the ways that God creates and expresses His kind of greatness? First of all, have you noticed that God produces His greatness in the way He chooses and uses people to do His work? Look at the way He chose to introduce His Son and our Saviour. He chose Mary. She was not a queen; she was merely a peasant girl. She was from Nazareth. Nazareth was not an impressive place and nobody impressive came from there. They used to say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God chose someone whom we would consider to be an ordinary, average person from a humble place to be the human means of a miracle.
When you think about it, God could have bypassed human instrumentality altogether and sent His Son to planet Earth riding on the back of a star like He was on a horse. He could have made it dark at midday or light at midnight. That would have caught everyone’s attention for the entrance of God into space and time. But instead He chose to express His greatness in the humble, everyday occurrence of the birth of a Jewish Baby — just a small twig on an old stump.
Throughout history God has chosen many people to do His work who would not have been elected “Most Likely to Succeed.” The Lord told Samuel that a son of Jesse would be the next king of Israel, so Samuel asked Jesse to bring each of his sons before him. Naturally, Jesse started with the oldest son, and Samuel thought that this oldest son must be the one God had chosen to be king. But the Lord spoke to him at that moment and said no, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).
So the eldest son was not chosen to be king, and neither was the second oldest, nor the third. In fact, Jesse paraded seven sons before Samuel, and Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen these” (v. 10). Then Samuel had to ask, “Do you have any other children?” Jesse told him, “Well, the youngest is out with the sheep.” Jesse was so sure that this child would not be chosen that he had not even called him in from the field. But when he was finally brought before Samuel, the Lord said, “This is he.” God chose to use David — the runt of the litter, just an unimpressive twig from the trunk of Jesse.
I think our God takes special pleasure in choosing the most unlikely, unheralded people to do His most spectacular work. The Bible tells us that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong and base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen … that no man should boast before God” (I Cor. 1:27-29). He chose a poor Jewish girl to bear the only begotten of the Father. When He fed 5,000 people He chose a little boy with his small fish and loaves. When He called 12 men to be His disciples and carry His word to the world He chose common men; the Roman authorities called them “uneducated and untrained men” (Acts 4:13). And even when He called a gifted scholar like Paul He allowed him to have a thorn in the flesh so that he could be weak in order to depend on the strength of God (II Cor. 12:7-10).
That’s God’s Christmas greatness. He’s always choosing someone who is just a stem off a stump to do something great — a boy named David, a teenage girl from Nazareth, a Baby born in a stable, fishermen and blue collar types, a boy with a sack lunch, and even you and me. That is the reason this Christmas truth is so exciting — if God can use people like that, then God can use people like us.
We are not queens or kings either. Few of us live the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And I don’t know about you, but none of the policymakers in Washington, Moscow, or Tokyo call me to ask what I think before they make decisions. We don’t possess the power of this world. But our God loves to use people like us to do great things.
So stop looking at other Christians and at other churches and concluding that God can do something great there but not here. Christmas teaches us that God stooped all the way down to a cow stall to touch a young woman from Nazareth to perform one of His greatest miracles. And if He can reach that far, He can certainly reach me and you to touch us with His power. He can use us to do something great for Him.
God produces His kind of greatness in the way He chooses and uses people to do His work. Also, the Christmas story shouts at us the truth that God produces His kind of greatness in the way He arranges and changes history to accomplish His will.
If you have read any of C. S. Lewis’ books, you know that he was a master of the English language, and he knew how to turn a phrase. In the first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia he symbolically portrayed the condition of the world before the coming of Christ. Narnia, or the world, was under the tyrannical rule of the evil White Witch. The people of Narnia never saw the sun. There was no warmth; everything was covered with ice and snow. Then Lewis summarized the gloom of that land without Christ by writing “Its always winter, but never Christmas.”
That’s the way Palestine was before Jesus was born. The people of Israel had once governed themselves under the rule of God, but long before Jesus was born the pagan Romans had ransacked the land and ruled the people, and the Romans neither understood nor cared about the glorious history of the people of God.
At one time the faith and ethics of the people of Israel had helped to shape the ideas and laws of the world, but by the time of Christ Greek culture and ideas ruled the world and the Jews were on the outside looking in. Few of the Jewish leaders even dreamed of returning their nation to its God-given glory. Some of the Jews were resorting to terrorism, trying to kill Romans, while the Pharisees and Sadduccees were busy squabbling among themselves. The situation was bleak — “always winter, but never Christmas.”
But then God arranged for that Baby to be born in Bethlehem, and in the ordinary, unhistoric event of the birth of a Jewish Child, God turned the world upside down. The reason that the world was changed is because that Child grew to be a man who lived a sinless life, claimed to be God in the flesh, and then proved that claim by dying for the sins of humankind and rising from the grave three days later.
Furthermore, He told His followers that the same power that caused Him to rise from the dead would be in them, and that power came upon them 50 days later on the day of Pentecost. Filled with the power of God’s Spirit they began to change the mighty Roman Empire — not with swords or senators but only with the story that began with the Baby of Bethlehem and ended with the life that He had given to them and offered to everyone. These humble Christians who had tasted the power of God were not intimidated by the power of Rome. While others were worshiping Caesar they spit on the image of Caesar and bowed before no human being except the One who had become human at Christmas. As a result they were persecuted or executed by a whole list of Casesars. They were misfits in the system of their world.
“The one true community of the one true God? What a joke! They’re merely another sect of fanatical outcasts.” Yet the astounding miracle is that before half a millennium had passed the power of the Roman Empire had passed into their hands. Against insurmountable odds, by the end of the third century, one fourth of the population in the eastern Roman Empire was Christian and one twentieth in the west. It caused the church father Tertullian to write, “Every age, condition, and rank is coming over to us … Already we fill the world.” The Christian community in the city of Rome itself numbered 100,000. As historian Will Durant wrote, “Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.”
Isn’t it interesting that when God wanted to change Rome He started in the insignificant village of Bethlehem? It’s God’s way of greatness. It starts small and grows until everything is affected by it. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like that. He said it’s like a mustard seed; it’s so tiny, but grows until it’s a large tree and the birds come and nest in its branches (Matt. 13:31-32). He said that the kingdom of God is like yeast, or leaven. A little is placed in a large mound of dough, but before long all of the dough is leavened (Matt. 13:33).
Do you ever want to see things change in this community, or this country, or in this church? Do you want to see a great work of God? God can act to arrange and change history, but it will probably be a lot more like the work of yeast than the work of dynamite. Yeast affects the dough nearby, then that dough affects the unleavened dough around it, until the whole lump of dough is leavened by just a little yeast.
Sometimes we’re guilty of pleading with God to light the dynamite we have laid, and sometimes we even light it ourselves, while He is doing His work like yeast. God’s will usually starts not by storming Rome but by being born in Bethlehem. That’s Christmas greatness. Christ is born in someone’s heart. His life is changed, and he shares the good news with someone else, and that person’s life is changed. Each in turn shares it with someone else until God has arranged and changed history to accomplish His will.
I also want us to see that God produces His kind of greatness in the way He shames us and claims us to be His witnesses.
Think again about Mary and Joseph. They were the human parents of the divine Savior and Lord. That is certainly a great honor, but have you ever considered the shame that was necessary for them to be used in that way? They were betrothed, not yet married, but Mary was pregnant — out of wedlock. In a little Jewish town like Nazareth that was a scandal. Can’t you just hear the gossip and see the heads shaking as they walked by?
“Mary’s story is that she’s pregnant by God’s Holy Spirit (ha!) and Joseph is claiming that an angel appeared to him and told him the same thing. Give us a break! It’s one thing to do something immoral, but to lie about it like that just makes it worse. At least they could have the courage to admit what they’ve done.”
But in the midst of this humiliating crisis, Mary and Joseph trusted God and looked to the future. Today we honor them for it, but it’s easy to honor them while sitting in cushioned pews or admiring them on the cover of our Christmas cards. The great work of God at Christmas began with the shame of a young couple and the truth is that you and I are also called to bear the reproach of Christ. The question is, “Are we willing to go beyond merely admiring the courage of Mary and Joseph and become willing to be weak in the eyes of men?”
How about it young people? Have you ever voluntarily associated yourself with Jesus Christ even when you knew it would brand you as different and set you up for ridicule and embarrassment? How about it adults? Even in the marketplace where its not in vogue to mention the name of Jesus in polite conversation, have you been willing to risk rejection from colleagues in order to make Jesus known?
Like Mary and Joseph, being great in the eyes of God often begins by being humiliated in the eyes of people. Jesus said that God’s kind of greatness is different from the world’s greatness. He said, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He also said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20:26-27).
In the kingdom of God, the way up is down. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (I Peter 5:6). Exalting Christ begins by humbling ourselves. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Paul said that the wisdom of God is made known by the foolishness of human preaching.
But when we are willing to put ourselves in a position to share Christ no matter what, there is no limit to the great things that God can do. I’m aware that not everyone came to worship today with a heart that was soft and open to the Lord, but some did. And while others were thinking about the special music, the pot roast for lunch, or Christmas presents, God may have touched you and worked in your heart in such a way that you will never be the same again. The people seated in this sanctuary may not have a clue that something great has happened, but that’s the way God’s kind of greatness often begins.
If He has spoken to you about beginning a relationship with Him, respond to Him and receive Him, and His great plan for you will begin to unfold. If He has convinced you that He can use you to do something great for Him, believe Him and obey. He can do something great in and through you. It may be winter, but it’s also Christmas. (N. Allan Moseley)
Third Sunday of Advent (A)
December 17, 1995
An Enthusiastic Endorsement
Many businesses arrange for celebrities to endorse their products to the general public. The list includes politicians, television and motion picture actors and actresses, astronauts, athletes, and occasionally, John Doe Public. These people are often given large sums of money to tout particular products to encourage people to quickly buy the commodity.
Matthew 11:2-11, relates that Jesus gave a rousing, enthusiastic endorsement of John the Baptist and his ministry.
Jesus endorses John, the prophet
The word prophet has several meanings. The ordinary Hebrew word for prophet is nabi, derived from a verb signifying “to bubble or pour forth” like a fountain. That described John! He bubbled with God’s message and poured forth the declarations given to him by God. The Greek “prophetess” signifies “one who speaks for another”. The essential meaning is that of “an interpreter.”
John shined as a prophet. He poured out spiritual faith and moral behavior. He called the people of Israel to a higher and purer lifestyle than they were experiencing. John’s idea of religion was from the heart, not just the law.
The “prophet” John poured out his heart to the people as they stood spellbound by his preaching. He told his hearers about God’s judgment and God’s love. Righteousness and holiness were life styles to live not just talk. In his aggressive manner he clearly defined sin and sinners. He called men and women to true repentance and to take a stand for God.
Our world needs more people like John who will preach the truth of salvation and holiness. They will be individuals who will not back down from Satan’s opposition, brave folks who will fill in the gaps of life to bring together earth and heaven for Jesus’ sake. During advent with its multiple Christmas celebrations and observances, there is no better time to lead our world to the manger, the cross, the empty tomb.
Jesus endorses John, the forerunner
John reiterated to the Pharisees throughout his ministry that he was not the Messiah. He continually pointed to Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the true Messiah.
In Bud Blake’s “Tiger” comic strip, two young boys were talking about Christmas. One said, “My folks got us an artificial tree this year.”
The other little fellow asked, “Doesn’t that bother you?”
The first boy replied, “No, not as long as the gifts are real!”
John understood that the Israelites were looking for the real Messiah to come and release them from their enemies. The Baptist knew that Jesus had come, not to release them from their Roman captors, but to free them from Satan’s snare.
Today the hearts of the people of this world long for the freedom that comes by way of Jesus’ forgiveness. The problem is that they are looking in all the wrong places. They are searching from religious cults to the spirits of materialism, lust, greed and popularity. These have become the gods of this world.
John told the people of his day that someone stronger than their gods was at hand. Today Christians can look back and point to the Savior who has come to redeem the world. That is the true meaning of Christmas!
Jesus endorses John, the man
Even amid John’s questions and doubts, Jesus expresses his confidence in the imprisoned John. Christ looked beyond John’s superficial doubts to see the integrity and legitimacy of the person. The Baptist had been a man of popularity, a mighty preacher and an exceptional warrior of God, and now he lay in a prison cell awaiting death. Those doubts were only human. He wanted to assure that his work and life would count for something beyond himself.
As a Christian who faithfully serves and sacrifices for the Lord, there is often tragedy, hurt, death and temptation. Human doubts arise, which will be magnified by Satan in an attempt to undermine our trust and confidence in God. The most logical time to doubt God is when we suffer.
When those times arise, rush to the one who supplies the answers — Jesus. His Word will affirm, protect, and dispel the doubt when it comes. Prayer and communication will bring God’s Spirit close to each one who asks.
Just as Jesus endorsed John, the man, He will do the same for every believer who puts trust and confidence in God. (Derl G. Keefer)
Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)
December 24, 1995
Once Upon A Time
I’m often asked, “what do you like most about Christmas?”
O how I like popcorn balls, candy canes, cookies with red and green sprinkles, eggnog, mistletoe, and even the funny fat man in the red suit. They help to make the season bright.
But my favorite part comes very late on Christmas Eve or before dawn on Christmas Day. Sometimes I’m in my study. Sometimes I’m sitting in a big, old cushioned chair right next to the tree. It’s the same every year. I open the Bible and read about, reflect on, and dream back to how it all started.
Once upon a time, a prophet — somebody who knows what’s on God’s mind not because he’s a good guesser but because God uses him like a messenger to get the story out — announced that people would be in for a big surprise when a child arrived who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The surprising thing about the child would be that he wouldn’t really be like any child that we’ve ever known. The child would be Emmanuel. The enfleshment of God. God with us.
Years passed and an angel — a special agent from God that is sometimes protective and sometimes polemical but almost always passes on something really important — told a rather ordinary teenage girl, Mary, that she was about to get pregnant without the help of her boyfriend.
Actually, Joseph was a lot more than a boyfriend. Mary and Joseph had already set a wedding date. That’s what really confused Mary. Mary and Joseph, you see, didn’t believe in premarital sex.
But what really shocked Mary was when the angel said her womb would be God’s way of getting into the world. It only made sense after the angel explained God as God and doing whatever the heaven He wants to do.
It took another angel to convince Joseph. Mary was getting nowhere with the “God-did-it” talk. Joseph was about to save face for everybody by dumping somebody who from all appearances wasn’t as goodie-goodie as he had previously assumed. Then an angel set him straight.
So there they were. Two relatively innocent young lovers who were going to be a part of the biggest thing that ever hit the news.
Then the government decided to count people and raise revenue. Instead of leaving well enough alone — an incredibly consistent trait of every government in every age — and exploiting the people where they lived, the government made everybody return to their home towns because they thought it was the best way to get an accurate count as well as the largest amount of cash.
Mary and Joseph went over hills, through valleys, and around bends from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem down south, 80 tough miles. While that doesn’t seem a long way by today’s standards, it took three days on foot.
It was a busy time. All the motels were booked solid. They ended up in a barn for the night. Mary went into labor. The baby was born, wrapped in rags, and put in a cow trough.
Remembering the instructions of the angels, the baby was named Jesus. And things started coming into focus for the parents. They knew it wasn’t any old name. It means “God saves.” Already aware that nothing that had happened made any earthly sense, they began to realize there was something very divine about the child.
It didn’t take long for their suspicions to be confirmed. Shepherds and angels soon arrived to serenade their baby. Highly symbolic gifts — gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for something that we’ll talk about on Good Friday — were delivered by travelers who started the tradition of wise men seeking Him.
The proud parents took the baby to church a few days later. They presented Him. That means they officially named and dedicated Him to a higher calling. It was kind of like our sacrament of baptism. And when an old pastor named Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he ran to Him, hugged Him, and was moved to exclaim, “Now I can die! Mine eyes have seen the coming of the Lord!”
Of course, not everybody was happy to celebrate the birth of God-in-the-baby-named-Jesus. There was a king called Herod who really freaked out. He wasn’t going to bow down to anybody; especially a kid in diapers — but he didn’t stand a chance. It’s long been proven that nobody can beat God or even God’s children when it really matters.
God only knows why He did it that way.
Why didn’t He just appear and say, “I’m in charge around here. But I’m not like any king that you’ve ever known. I love you. I want the best for you. And I’m going to give the best to you. You get to live forever through me”? Why the out-of-this-world-yet-in-this-world-through-a-woman’s-womb birth? Why Mary? Why Joseph? Why Israel? Why Bethlehem? Why?
God only knows.
Sure, there are always smart guys who try to tell us why God did this or that. You know the kind. They act as if they’re God’s other sons or something. They talk about stuff that only God knows for sure. Nobody pays much attention to them for long.
God only knows why He did it that way. But in the end, it doesn’t or won’t make any difference. The important thing is what He did in that baby named after Himself.
That’s all we need to know about the story.
That’s why I love to tell the story.
It’s a good story.
And best of all, it’s true! (Robert R. Kopp)
First Sunday after Christmas (A)
December 31, 1995
God’s Sense of Humor
The event of Jesus proves that God has a sense of humor. From the first accounts of His birth, through those last pitiable details of his death, we see that the entire life of this man is a mirror which reflects the sober attitude of God that expresses itself in serious humor.
We read the Christmas stories in the Bible and see immediately that they tell us more about God than we can imagine.
It is a shame that we get so hung up on things like a star which guides wiseman, and a virgin who bears a baby. When we center on these we miss the real message of the story, which is that baby Himself. And so, some 2000 years ago, God’s biggest joke was born. Into a manger, a barn with its nauseating smell of cattle dung, in the midst of the numbing pain of childbirth, came that tiny infant who was to set down new marching orders for the world.
This baby was laid out on needles of straw in something akin to a long diaper. And what a baby he was — one clothed in normality to the Nth degree. This baby, with his puffed, blotchy little face, his healthy lungs, and healthy bowels, this baby was called The Son of God — and I’m sure God laughed.
But the story doesn’t stop there — it couldn’t stop there. We next find this baby as being a full-grown man. He was a carpenter by trade, and He was good at it. Do you remember when he said, “My yoke is easy?” He was alluding to His carpenter days when He built these yokes to fit oxen. When we next see Him, He is in the business of making a different kind of yoke — one that binds man to God. A carpenter is what we called this fellow Jesus — a worker with wood. Could it be that this fellow with the calloused hands and the sweaty brow really was something special? And could it be that in Him God really did have a new word for His people? That’s like saying that God could do something special with a truck driver, or a hamburger cook. And indeed He can.
The Galilean carpenter set about His world with what many called delusions of grandeur. He thought He was God’s son — “what gall!” thought His enemies! Here was the proverbial “sow’s ear” pawning Himself off as a religious “silk purse.”
And the trouble He got Himself into! He didn’t know that He wasn’t supposed to forgive sins, so He went on and did it anyway. He did know that He wasn’t supposed to buck the religious status quo, but He did it anyway — and got kicked down for it.
People really thought that He flipped His lid when He assembled the members of His army — all 12 of them. One leader and 12 followers — what in the world could they do? They turned it upside down, that’s what. What else could you call what happened? It made an atomic bomb blast seem as gentle as a firecracker pop. And the 12 became 20, and then 200, and then 20,000 and the numbers are still growing.
That poor, crazy carpenter. He actually thought that God could use Him. But, as most religious establishments go, the “in” group in Jesus’ day had to put a stop to this madness. The very idea of referring to God as if He were a Father, or of treating everyone as if they were a brother. So they put a quick halt to this stuff. The authorities hauled up the carpenter before the Jerusalem Supreme Court. They would show Him that he couldn’t fight City Hall and win. With a half-invented charge of blasphemy, they sentenced this boat-rocking religious fanatic to death.
And what a death it was. The town turned out for quite a show. You can almost imagine the shoving and pushing the folks did to get a “ring-side” seat. If such things existed then, the vendors would have been out peddling programs and popcorn.
Then the moment came — it was time for the execution. A hush ran through the crowd. The silence was deafening. And then came the blows of the hammer, as one spike after another glued that pain-racked body to the cross. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. The blood streamed from those hands and spelled an end to the circus. And the crowd waited in death-like silence.
An hour passed, then two, and four, and six hours snailed by, and still the carpenter clung to life, even as he babbled something about forgiving everyone there because they didn’t know what they were doing. Then death came, almost as a welcome friend. The sky grew coldly dark. A Roman soldier was heard saying, “Surely this was the Son of God.” And the people went home, a little more empty.
Three days later found Mary Magdalene slipping silently down the still dark path which led to the grave yard. She just couldn’t believe that Jesus was dead. And so she went back again and again to touch that cold corpse. But this day was different — the tomb was as empty as a bubble. Jesus was gone.
And God laughed again!
Isn’t that the way God always works? From an obscure Galilean village came God’s best answer to men’s problems. God always seems to choose the obscure, the ludicrous, and even the laughable things and people of this world to get his work done.
God chose a donkey-caravan driver form Mesopotamia, better known to us as Abraham, to begin his work. Then he chose a tongue-tied Hebrew named Moses to carry it through. And then came Balaam, who was not as wise as even his donkey. And God chose Samson who was as weak in the mind as he was strong in the body, and David, the lustiest of Hebrews.
God chose Hosea who married a prostitute, and Isaiah who cavorted about naked in order to present God’s message to King Sargon.
Then you can look at some of the men and women whom Jesus Himself chose. There were James and John, who would rather burn up their enemies than love them; and Peter, who let his quick tongue get him into all sorts of messes. And Jesus chose Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute. And then there was Judas — a rascal to the very end.
Every one of these people seems unfit by our standards, and even laughable. What a far cry these folks are from our Sunday School saints! They percolated with life, and seemed to be bursting at the seams with energy. They were people with great faults, and great contributions.
And so God began His work with the seemingly most unfit of people. And then he chose you and me — we fit the mold don’t we? Rather than being a fact which forces us to hang our heads in shame, this realization makes us proud to know that God can use even us.
God is at work in all the world, in the people who seem the least likely to be the soldiers of His army. High school students and housewives, preachers and teachers, bankers and grocery baggers — all of these are the ones who build the church and carry on God’s work. The so-called ordinary folks in the ends of this world are God’s prize possessions. Each one of us is a potential leader, too.
Hitler tried to breed a superhuman race so that he could conquer the world. God uses the everyday person, and we know who will really win.
I began by reading a passage from the book of Hebrews. This passage tells us that Jesus really was a man — special to be sure — but still a man. God became a real, live, breathing, thinking human being. Somehow that fact tells us that He really does care about people in a special way. So He became one of us, and people laughed at Him, too.
But every time the world thinks that it has the deck stacked, God pulls out another wild card. That’s what Jesus was, and in a sense that’s what we Christians are.
So God does have a sense of humor — He chooses those who seem the least likely to win. He forms his team from the “B” string. The craziest thing about it is that He wins.
God will have the last laugh. (Don M. Aycock)
Baptism of the Lord (A)
January 7, 1996
Visualize World Peace?
In Sir James Matthew Barrie’s 1904 book entitled Peter Pan, all Peter and his friends had to do in order to fly was think happy thoughts. The reason Barrie’s book is classified as fiction instead of nonfiction is that we know that in real life our world is not changed merely by thinking it so.
It reminds me of a popular bumper sticker in our area. It reads, “Visualize World Peace”. Well, have you tried it? Did it work? My understanding of what we are being asked to do by the ones who wrote and distributed the bumper sticker it that we are to create a mental picture of every nation and every person getting along with one another in the hope that the picture will become a reality. That, along with Peter Pan deserves to be shelved in the fiction section, because it’s fantasy. Imagining, or visualizing, something does not bring it to pass any more than thinking lots of happy thoughts can reverse the effects of gravity.
Of course, the idea that people and the world are changed by this kind of mental magic has its religious versions also. Eastern mysticism urges people to chant their mantra, meditate on their vision of reality and it will come to pass since they are God. In ancient sympathetic magical rites, people recited special words and performed acts that simulated the desired end, and it was thought that this hocus pocus would affect reality. There is also a Christian version of the technique of visualization. When, for example, someone is sick, they are told, as I read this week, to “See yourself healthy, strong, active; see yourself riding bicycles across country; jogging; swimming; skateboarding; hiking; riding horseback; exercising, etc. If an actual photograph of yourself in peak health is available, set it before your eyes … Get a vision of yourself well and active.”
The story of Cornelius and Peter is a story about how people are changed and how world peace is created, but it doesn’t come to pass by mental techniques, sympathetic magic, visualization therapy, or naming it and claiming it. According to this story, how does it come to pass? How are people changed and world peace generated?
The reason I say that this is a story about personal character change and peace between different kinds of people is because both occur in this story. Peter was a devout Jew who was the leader of a group of Jewish Christians. For generations, Jews had had nothing to do with Gentiles, and Peter was still locked in that kind of thinking. The racial, national, and cultural barriers that divided him from non-Jews were still intact. The Berlin Wall of his soul was still standing. The rigid, Jewish system of religious apartheid still controlled his spirit.
Does such a problem exist today among God’s people? In an article entitled “The Myth of Racial Progress,” writer Andres Tapia stated, “It is still true that 11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Billy Graham has said recently, “racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today. Our world seems caught up in a tidal wave of racial and ethnic tension.”
A typical case in point was revealed in a painful interview with Kay Coles James, an African-American Christian and Executive Vice President of the Family Research Council. She said that she was involved in a weekly Bible study that met at a white church. One of the highlights of the year for the group was their trip to Myrtle Beach together. The group made the trip to Myrtle Beach, but Mrs. James and her husband were never even invited by this group of white Christians.
Another church leader, Glandion Carney, who is associate director of the missions department of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, recently said about this issue, “I am very pessimistic. So much has been written on this topic, but when are we going to come together and not argue the issue and simply do what the Bible says, to do what is right regarding the issue of racial prejudice?” Much more could be said by way of documenting the existence of the problem, but events and attitudes in our own city prove its existence almost every day.
On the other hand, if anything is taught clearly in the New Testament about the church of Jesus the Christ, it is that His church is to be a body in which racial, national, and cultural divisions lose their relevance. Instead, in the church, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). God did something new in the church of Jesus Christ; He created a new community whose spiritual bonds transcend every kind of boundary.
The story before us is an illustration of that truth, and it shows us that God intended to use Peter to help bring it to pass. How did it come to pass? How did the church of Jesus Christ, which at this point almost completely consisted of Jews, become a movement made up of people from every nation, race, and religious background? How did a person who was prone to prejudice become someone who was inclusive and who offered Jesus Christ to people of all nationalities and religions? Those are the two questions that are before us today. I want to offer several answers to those questions, and the first is that
Personal transformation and peace between people are works of God that are accessed by prayer.
That was the way it took place in the lives of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a good man who, like all people, needed the forgiveness of sins and new life that can come only through Jesus Christ. How was he to find it? The sovereign God of the universe intervened in his life, and He did it by communicating with Cornelius in response to prayer. Peter was a good man who had already received the forgiveness of sins and new life that come only through Jesus Christ, but he was still stuck in his old way of thinking about people of other races and nations. How was he to change? The sovereign God of the universe intervened in his life, and He did it by communicating with him in prayer.
In the case of Cornelius, the story makes it clear that he had been seeking God. He was a Gentile who had become a believer in the one true God, but he still did not know of Jesus and the new life that Jesus offered. He needed to go through the change that the Bible calls “reconciliation;” he needed to be reconciled to God. How did God arrange for that to happen? An angel appeared to him in a vision and spoke to him. The angel mentioned a man’s name, for that matter both of his names — Simon and Peter. The angel also gave Cornelius the name of the city where Peter was staying. He also gave him Peter’s address and the name of the man with whom he was staying. These were not the kinds of details that would have popped into Cornelius’ head by coincidence. They were miraculous revelations straight from the one true God of the universe. This was the work of God.
In the case of Peter, he was a Christian, but he also needed to go through a change. The kind of change he needed was what the Bible calls “sanctification” — becoming more holy, or becoming more like Jesus. Specifically, he needed to change in the way he thought about and acted toward people who were of a different racial, cultural, and religious background than him.
How did God arrange for that to happen? Just as He had done with Cornelius, God communicated with him by means of a vision. God showed him a sheet of unclean foods, foods that no faithful Jew would have eaten because their religious regulations prohibited them from eating them. But in this vision God commanded Peter to eat these foods — a command that would have been inconceivable to a Jew like Peter. But the voice in the vision said that Peter was not to regard as unclean what God had cleansed. Peter, I’m sure, recoiled at such a suggestion, necessitating that God repeat the vision three times to make sure that Peter got the message.
Before the vision could grow cold in Peter’s mind God spoke to Peter and told him that three men were looking for him. He was to go with them, and simultaneously God arranged for the three messengers from the house of Cornelius to arrive at the house where Peter was staying. Like the events in the life of Cornelius, this was also the work of God.
Understand what was happening here. In the span of only a few days, two human beings were radically changed. One was changed in that God Himself came to dwell in his life, forgave him of sin, and made him a new person. The other was changed in the way he thought about people who were different from him. And both of them were changed in that they began a relationship with one another that was made possible by their mutual faith in Jesus Christ. Now think of the people you know who need to change, who should change. But you have thought for years that they need to change and nothing has happened. They are the same, with no desire to change in sight. How will it happen? It is possible for people to change, but it is only possible through the work of God in their lives. In fact, it may take something as drastic as the kind of miracles we see in the lives of Cornelius and Peter. So, if someone is about to drive you crazy because of their errant ways and they don’t even see their problem, you might as well stop wringing your hands and get on your knees. The only way significant and lasting change will come to pass is when it is the work of God in answer to prayer.
The same is true in international relations. How will we have world peace in which people of different nations and races respect and love one another? The United Nations won’t cause it to happen. For all of their impressive rhetoric and solemn resolutions, they will never bring about peace. The best that they will be able to do is to help in managing the conflict. International peace is dependent on personal peace, and that comes only through Jesus Christ. In fact, as Peter spoke to Cornelius and his friends he referred to “peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)” (v. 36). So, if you and I want to get it together personally and if we want people to come together interpersonally and internationally, we have to begin by realizing that it is the work of God that is accessed by prayer.
A second lesson that we may learn from this story is this:
Personal transformation and peace between people are possible when we are open to the work of the Spirit of God.
Was Peter open? At first it seems that he just does not get it. He was living in a new covenant of grace and inclusiveness through Jesus Christ, but he was acting as if people were still under the old covenant of law and exclusivism. Peter was trying to force the Lord to live in the strait jacket of racial favoritism, so when the Lord broke through his petty provincialism to show him that He loved the Gentiles too the question became, “Is Peter willing to see the new truth and to cooperate with the fresh wind of the Spirit that is blowing in his life?”
The amazing answer is that Peter did see what God was doing, he was open to change, and he was willing to join Him in His work.
The reason that answer is amazing is that we all have such an enormous capacity to expect only what has been done before. So many times we say, “Never,” when God wants us to be open to new possibilities. “I’ll never move,” “I’ll never change my feelings,” “I’ll never accept certain people,” “I’ll never like that new way of doing things,” “I’ll never forgive her.” Usually the very area about which we say, “Never” is where God intends to do His work. What we ought to say is, “I will never allow what has been to prevent me from being open to new ways for the Spirit to work in my life in the future. I will never allow my previous experience to restrict God so that He must perform according to my expectations.” That is the openness, the willingness, that we need in order to be available to do whatever the Master puts before us.
He is always letting down sheets in front of us. Usually they are filled with things that we have not been willing to consider doing thus far, and the question is, “Are we open to follow the Spirit into new territory so that He can change us into the image of Jesus?” How does He challenge us to walk into uncharted territory? Are you sensitive to the Holy Spirit quickening our spirit to pray, to help, to love, to support? Are you open to follow the new direction of the Spirit of God in your life? It’s the only way to personal transformation and peace between you and others.
Another truth about changes in people and world peace that arises out of this passage of scripture is that
Personal transformation and peace between people are possible only when we obey the will of God.
It’s not that we accomplish these things on our own, because they are works of God, but we are to cooperate with God by responding to His leadership in our lives and obeying His explicit commands. God worked these miracles in the lives of Peter and Cornelius in order to do a new thing in them and through them. But in order for this to be accomplished, God had some things for them to do. Cornelius had to send the messengers in obedience to the angel of God. Peter had to go to Caesarea. Peter had to preach. Cornelius had to listen. When God desires to change us and cause us to love some person or people whom we have yet to love, He has something for us to do.
About seventy-five years ago on a Sunday night, Alexander Whyte preached on this text to the people he pastored in St. George’s Church in Edinburgh. He concluded his message with a challenge to do something in response to the truth of the word of God.
He said, If you would take a four-cornered napkin when you go home, take pen and ink, and write the names of nations, and the churches, and the denominations, and the congregations, and the ministers, and the public men and the private citizens, and take neighbors, and the fellow worshippers — all the people you dislike and despise, and do not, and cannot, and will not, love … Then look up and say, ‘…Lord, I neither can speak well, nor think well, nor hope well, of these people. I cannot do it, and I will not try.’ If you acted out and spoke out all the evil things that are in your heart in some such way as that, you would thus get such a sight of yourselves that you would never forget it. And, for your reward … like Peter, you would one day come to be able to say, ‘Of truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons … And then it would go up for a memorial before God, the complete change and the noble alteration that had come to your mind and to your heart.
And it didn’t happen by visualizing it, or claiming it into existence. God accomplished it, and He did it because you were open to His work and you obeyed His word.
Some people here today need some changes in their hearts. Some Christians have spent too many years with a certain person or a certain kind of person shut out of your circle of love. Don’t call unholy what God has cleansed. He shows no partiality, why should you? What’s in the sheet that He’s lowering before you today? Take and eat.
There may also be someone who has yet to put your faith in Jesus and Jesus alone to reconcile you to God, forgive you of sin, and give you eternal and abundant life. Before Cornelius put his faith in Jesus he was not a bad person; he was a good man. As a centurion he was respected as a leader. The Bible says that he believed in God, prayed to Him, and he was generous. But all of that was not enough to make him a Christian. As good as he was, he was not good enough. He needed Jesus to do what He died on the cross to do, to take away his sins, and you need Jesus, too. (N. Allan Moseley)
Second Sunday after Epiphany (A)
January 14, 1996
(I Corinthians 1:1-9)
Traditions play an important part in my family’s Christmas. When my children were younger the tradition started with a wake up call from either Jeff or Julie. Next came the family assembling around the tree and opening up the stocking gifts with a “thank you” for each one. Mom Hodges, of Swedish heritage, always fixed her special Swedish Tea Ring for us to enjoy at breakfast. After clearing the table we reassembled around the tree to open all the gifts!
A gift usually is something given without a thought of paybacks. A true gift is given from the heart.
I Corinthians 1:1-9 reveals some gifts from the heart of God to His children.
The Gift of Holiness
The gift of holiness is received through a yielded lifestyle in harmony with God’s will for life. It includes being set apart as a sacrifice in a very special and unique sense of belonging to God. It involves a call to “sainthood”, not monasticism nor isolationism, but clean godly living.
In everyone’s life there are many conflicts, divisions, and tensions. These negative forces must be reconciled before a person can find real peace. When God is allowed to change these areas, he makes life beautiful and whole. Holiness becomes a synonym of wholeness.
In his commentary on Corinthians John Calvin remarked, “For if you do not by holiness of life show yourself to be a Christian, you may indeed be in the church, and pass undetected, but of it you cannot be. Hence all must be sanctified in Christ who would be reckoned among the people of God.”1
The Gift of Divine Love
The gift that Paul describes is the unmerited love of God in action through Jesus Christ. God’s rich love abounds in the heart of the believer. His unmerited love is constantly available, conditioned only by our receptivity to it.
Kenneth Chalfin writes in the Communicator’s Commentary that behind people’s efforts to attempt to impress God is the concern that God will not love them the way they are in life. He says they fall prey to that concept because they live in a world where people try to make others conform to their way of living or else they withhold love! God is not like that. His love has no limitations.
Annie Johnson Flint wrote:
His grace is great enough to meet the great things —
The crashing waves that overwhelm the soul,
The roaring winds that leave us stunned and breathless,
The sudden storms beyond our life’s control.
His grace is great enough to meet the small things —
The little pin-pricked troubles that annoy,
The insect worries, buzzing and persistent,
The squeaking wheels that grate upon our joy.2
God certainly has gifted us with his amazing love!
The Gift of Fellowship
The basic theme of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is living as a Christian in a secular world. That was true of an ancient pagan culture; it is more so in today’s world. We live in a society where people are trying to define life totally apart from one another and especially away from God. Paul was writing to people who had a direct antithesis to the word “fellowship.” They couldn’t get along with one another. There was bitterness and strife within the church at Corinth.
The apostle told them that the gift from God includes fellowship with him and a restoration of fellowship with others. That fellowship is in the “church,” the family of God. Paul literally demands that the Corinthians make peace with one another by discovering God’s love for them.
The goal of every church fellowship is to absorb spiritual strength, encouragement, hope, and joy from each other. There is an interdependence of Christians lifting each other in faith even as the world shoots its anti-Christian darts at the fellowship.
Take time to thank God for those in your church who have encouraged your life! Thank God also for the Son who has brought you into the broad fellowship of the Kingdom. (Derl G. Keefer)
1John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans, by John Pringle (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 1:52.
2Annie Johnson Flint, 1200 Religious Quotations, ed. Frank S. Mead and Judy G. Mead (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1965), p. 201.
Third Sunday After Epiphany (A)
January 21, 1996
A Plea for Unity
(1 Corinthians 1:10-18)
There is division in the church at Corinth. Paul takes on the Herculean task of attempting to mend a rocky situation — and by mail nonetheless! Here are people who should have been basking in brotherly love and care, but instead are living in the lion’s den of argument and dissension. The Corinthians were bleeding from all the hurts they had inflicted on one another. Paul uses the word schismata, which literally means “several tears in a garment.”
Today “Corinthian copycat” churches abound in our world. They are as unsightly as a torn garment. In I Corinthians 1:10-18, Paul begs for unity in the Corinthian community. His call for unity transcends the sands of time for he would make the same plea to us today!
As he helped his friends learn unity, we can also benefit from his counsel with them.
Focusing on Christ brings unity
When churches fragment it is because people take their eyes off Jesus as their purpose for existence.
More than a half century ago, Samuel Judson Porter told of his professor friend who experimented with electromagnetism. The experiment was as follows. On an oak table he placed a pile of horseshoe nails. In one corner of the same room was a powerful dynamo.
When the electric current started, the poles of the battery were wrapped up from under the table. Though the nails did not touch the cables, a magnetic force was placed around the table. As long as this force field was maintained, the loose horseshoe nails could be built up into various forms such as a cube, a sphere or an arch. The moment the current was cut off; the nails would fall into a shapeless mass.
What the magnetic field was to the nails, Christ is to the church. Without his pull the church falls into a shapeless and hapless form. What shape is your church in today?
Focusing on people brings unity
In “The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing” from H. B. London on September 7, 1995, recognition is given to the record-setting performance of Baltimore Orioles, Cal Ripken, Jr. London quotes Ripkin’s statement, “I just go out every day to do the best I can.”
Then the author reminds the deader that Cal played when he didn’t feel like playing, when the team lost 21 straight at one time, when the attendance figures were down, when there were problems at home, or when he was in a batting slump. Still Ripkin put on his uniform and went to his position at shortstop to give it his very best effort.
The church exists for God’s people to do their best all the time. There must be a cooperative effort for the building of the Kingdom of God so that people can know and experience the forgiveness of God. That work occurs amid personality, cultural, educational, or social differences. Paul promotes unity, not uniformity of thought and action. Pragmatist Paul was aware that there would always be differences in people, but for the sake of the kingdom those differences are laid aside. Christ ushers in unity and challenges His people to do their best.
Elton Trueblood wrote, The Predicament of Modern Man, “Bad and divided as the church may be, it is the only organization really working at the job of affecting men’s lives in the deep way in which they must be affected if what we prize is to survive.”
Focusing on the Gospel brings unity
The good news of Jesus Christ is that redemption is available through the cross of Christ. Acceptance of the truth of salvation bonds Christian community together.
The specific task of the church is to bring the gospel to a lost and dying world.
Chuck Swindoll tells of the life-saving station that became a clubhouse because the members lost sight of the reason for their existence. As the lifesaving station began, its main goal was to send out a team of people to pull those drowning victims from the sea. As time passed the station became famous. Eventually it became an exclusive club and only rarely did its members do any real lifesaving. On one occasion a large ship was wrecked off the coast. The boat crews brought in many cold, wet, half-drowned folks. These people were dirty, sick and lonely. Others were of different color than the club members. That beautiful new clubhouse suddenly became a mess. A special committee saw to it that a shower house was immediately built outside and away from the club itself so that victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside. After much discussion a few of the members left to start a “real” lifesaving station down the beach. Swindoll wrote that after a time it too lost its focus. The process was repeated several times.
His final lines state, “Shipwrecks still occur in those waters, but now, most of the victims are not saved. Everyday they drown at sea, and few seem to care … so very few.”
Does your church care for the lost anymore? (Derl G. Keefer)
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (A)
January 28, 1995
Lean on Me
A few years ago, Mother Teresa visited the United States. She was asked what she thought about the American way of life. Considering her ministry with the poorest of the poor in India, she was asked what she thought of America. She replied without hesitation, “I have never seen such poor people.”
If any people in the world could be accused of having it all, they would be Americans. RV. MTV. BLT. VCR. NPR. NRA, PTA. BMW! Miller Lite. Ultra Brite! Washers. Dryers. Disney World. Diet Coke. Dr. Pepper. Disposable income as well as diapers. 100% cotton Dockers! Madonna. Mario. Michaels Jackson and Jordan. The mall! Cable. Carphones. Earphones. Carry-around-the-house portables! 5 for 5 at Arby’s. $200 haircuts. Discount. Rebate. Sale. Through the mail. “Ah didn’t inhale!” Big Boy. K Boy. Big Mac. Whopper. All you can eat! Arcade. Sega. Nintendo. Video. Cheers! We’ve got it all.
But we don’t seem to know what to do with it.
I’m reminded of the man who was told by his doctor, “According to the results from the lab, you have two days to live. That’s the good news.” “Good news? How in the world could that be seen as good news?” the man asked. The doctor explained, “Well, according to the date on the lab results, the report is two days old.”
There is no other country in the world as wealthy as America. Everything seems so good. But we don’t seem to know what to do with it. Something’s terribly wrong. As Mother Teresa lamented, “I have never seen such poor people.”
If any people in the world could be described as having nothing, they would be Americans. Chilled out. Psyched out. Stressed out. Burned out. Bummed out. Dropped out! Anacin. Excedrin. Bufferin. Valium! Midol. Pepto Bismal. Metamucil. Depends! Tums. Rolaids. ExLax! Alcohol. Affairs. Divorce. Drugs. Dr. Death!
Despite all of America’s prosperity, too many people just can’t seem to buy happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is a national obsession. That’s what Phil, Oprah, Geraldo, Sally Jesse, and all of the rest of them are all about. I went to Waldenbooks the other day and found these titles promising paths to happiness: How to Live Between Office Visits, Eat More, Weigh Less, Your Man and His Mother, How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood, Hand-Me-Down Genes and Second-Hand Emotions, Get Rid of Him, You’re Not What I Expected, What To Do When He Has a Headache, and I Didn’t Ask to Be in this Family. And to think nobody was interested in publishing my book on homiletics!
A congressman went to his pastor and asked for some advice. He wanted to know where to look to find the answers to the questions facing our great nation. The pastor said, “Just go outside tonight, look up at the stars, and God will speak to you.” The congressman followed the pastor’s counsel. First thing the next morning, he returned to his pastor and complained, “It rained last night. I got wet. I felt like a fool.” The pastor smiled and said, “Not bad for the first time.”
The problem with too many folks’ pursuit of happiness is that they spend too much time looking in and around themselves when they should be looking to our Lord for help. Too many people are looking in all of the wrong places for what only our Lord can provide.
That’s the message of Christianity: Believe in Jesus! Behave like Jesus taught! Be blessed by Jesus!
Believe in Jesus!
Happiness begins when we believe in Jesus. Until we believe in Jesus, we keep turning on the tube and putting down the green to watch and read ultimately useless prescriptions for experiencing happiness. We know they’re useless — temporary at best, a band-aid approach when surgery is required — because the talk shows and tabloids and bookstores have to keep coming up with new ideas to compensate for the ones that didn’t work last week.
But believing in Jesus has always worked. Believing in Jesus has always yielded happiness, wholeness, joy, and eternal security.
Believing in Jesus means acknowledging Him to be who He said He is. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me … I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11, 14). Peter put it simply: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). To believe in Jesus means to acknowledge Him as the one and only Lord and Savior.
Experiencing life in Jesus begins when we invite Him into our hearts as Lord and Savior. It’s easy: “Lord God in Jesus, I invite you into my heart as Lord and Savior.” That’s it! That’s how happiness begins.
If you’ve never done it before, do it now! If you’ve done it before and yet know you need to renew your relationship with Him, do it now! Everybody needs Jesus as Lord and Savior and everybody needs to renew their relationship with Him every now and then.
Behave like Jesus Taught!
Believing in Jesus includes behaving like He taught. Or as we read in 1 John 3:23-24a, “This is His commandment, that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”
The best place to learn how to behave like a believer is the Bible. The quickest introduction to behaving like a believer in the Bible is the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes which teach us how to be happy.
The word beatitude comes from the Latin beatitude which means “made happy.” Jesus said that whoever behaves like He taught in the Beatitudes will be blessed. The word means to be happy or fortunate. That’s why Robert Schuller looked at our Lord’s Beatitudes and called them the “Be Happy Attitudes.” In other words, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, incorporate these principles into your life” (We may be able to use the music of a song from the sixties — “If You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life” — to help us to remember that last line!).
And the first Beatitude sets the tone for our belief and behavior: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I think of it as our declaration of dependence Beatitude. I like the way The New English Bible puts it, “How blest are those who know their need of God; the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” It’s our Lord saying to us, “Lean on Me!”
To be poor in spirit has nothing to do with our market value, abilities, energies, or the like. It means to recognize our dependence upon our Lord for happy living and eternal life. As Calvin commented, “Christ pronounces those to be happy who … submit themselves wholly to God.”
Be Blessed by Jesus!
Here’s the payoff. Our Lord supports people who lean on Him. Again, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Or as Matthew Henry wrote back in 1721, “This poverty of Spirit is a gracious disposition of the soul, by which we are emptied of self, in order to our being filled with Jesus Christ.” That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Of if the child asked for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7ff). That’s what Peter meant when he wrote, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time” (2 Peter 5). Simply, believe in Jesus, behave like Jesus taught, and be blessed by Jesus.
You may have heard about the time a football player at Oklahoma was declared academically ineligible right before the big game with Nebraska. The coach at that time was Barry Switzer. According to the story, Coach Switzer went to the professor and asked him to give the player another chance. The professor agreed. Switzer asked if he could sit in the room with the player to offer emotional support. The professor agreed.
When the player came in for the test, Switzer sat behind him. The professor said, “O.K., I’m only going to ask you one question. If you get it right, you play. If you get it wrong, you will remain academically ineligible. Here goes. What is seven times seven?”
“Golly,” said the player as he squirmed in his seat, “that’s a toughie. Seven times seven. Seven times seven. Seven times seven equals forty-nine.” Switzer blurted out, “C’mon, prof — give him another chance!”
Well, our Lord gives us another chance. Our Lord invites us to be happy. And happiness begins when we believe in Him. That’s an acknowledgment of His unique saving Lordship. And it’s a declaration of dependence upon Him for happy living and eternal life. Then we pray and work to behave like He taught. And when we lean on Him and live for Him, we are blessed by Him.
Paul Watermulder, Senior Pastor of Burlingham, California First Presbyterian Church, told the story of David Kraft who lived in the San Francisco Bay area.
He grew up in a Christian home. His dad was a pastor. David grew up with a dad who always recalled our Lord’s faithfulness in the past as a reminder to trust our Lord for the future.
David’s dad loved Jesus. And David loved Jesus, too. Eventually, he felt our Lord’s call to pastoral ministry. So he went to seminary in Denver.
David was a big, athletic fellow. He was 6’2″ and weighed about 200 pounds. He was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
At the age of 22, when most young women and men are looking at the possibilities for the rest of their lives, David was forced to consider the end of his life. He had cancer. It devastated his body. The big and strong 200-pound athlete was reduced to a weak 80-pounder.
Just before passing from here to eternity, he asked his dad to come to his side. Lying in the hospital bed, David looked up and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was a little boy and how you used to hold me in your arms close to your chest?” His dad remembered. He nodded. David asked, “Do you think you can do that one more time? One last time?”
David’s dad bent down to pick up his 32 year old, 6’2″, 80-pound baby. He held David close to his chest. David’s face was right next to his dad’s face. They were eyeball to eyeball. Tears streamed down their faces. And David said to his daddy, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that can enable me to face even a moment like this.”
Our Lord says, “Lean on Me!” It’s the best advice. It’s how to be happy. (Robert R. Kopp)
Sermon Briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene; N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; and Don M. Aycock, Men’s Ministries Consultant, SBC Brotherhood Commission, Memphis, TN.
First Sunday of Advent (A)