Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, don’t tell that to the city assessment person of Sparta Township! Tis’ that time of the year again. This past Tuesday in the mail we got a postcard telling us how much (or how little) our house is worth. Some rando, who has barely walked the perimeter of our yard, tells us how much value my house has. What a crock?! He doesn’t step inside. He doesn’t look around. He doesn’t recognize all that my house has to offer. A quick glance, a swift judgement, and a proposed number with a dollar sign in front. To be sure, he doesn’t see the quirks or inconsistences on the interior. This is a good thing I suppose. But this also means he hasn’t seen the upgrades or improvements we’ve made over the past three years. He is clueless to the ways we’ve enhanced the value. Mr. or Mrs. City Assessor looks at the exterior, peruses the surface, and thinks he/she knows all they need to make an accurate assessment of our home’s value. I’m sure they have some tool or tracking device. They probably have magical method in their computer system. They undoubtedly have some fair market value algorithm. But at the end of the day, it is all on a surface level, based solely on outward appearances.
Ironically, the same day we were told how much our house is “fairly” assessed at, we also received a mailing from local realtors telling us how much homes similar to ours are selling for. Of course, they are looking to drum up business for themselves. But it is clearly a sellers’ market. No one purchasing a home seems to care about what Mr. or Mrs. City Assessor has to say. Homes are selling for far more than what they appear to be worth. I have no doubt that if I put my house up for sale today, it would sell instantly and at a price far beyond what that flimsy white postcard told me.
So where am I going with this? I’m glad you asked. From a worldly perspective, so much of a person’s worth today is determined by external factors. What is your salary? How big is your house? How powerful is your position? How happy is your marriage? How well-behaved are your children? How wide is your influence? How successful are you? How good are your grades? This list can go on and on. But the common thread in these questions is an emphasis on the external, an obsession with the superficial, a relentless mindset on materialism. Our criteria-gripped culture has become so fascinated and fixated on stuff and success. From this quick calculation, they (and we too at times) will place people into categories. They will determine our value. They will label our worth. Very rarely will the world slow down, to look beyond the proverbial front door and window shades, to see the hidden value of people.
God functions differently. Thank goodness! Our hidden value, which really isn’t hidden at all, is found in who God has created and redeemed us to be. I’m valuable and full of worth because God declares it. You are valuable and full of worth because God declares it. Not because we’ve earned it, acquired it, or even lucked out. We are each valuable and of incredible worth… because God in His goodness looked at us and said, “I created you. You are loved. You belong to me.” The Bible tells us that in the eyes of God we are precious, honored, and loved—even and despite all our internal and external quirks, inconsistences, and imperfections! Perhaps you have heard these words of the Lord before, spoken to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7) The Lord’s point, at Eliab’s expense, was that He doesn’t measure value and worth in the same way the rest of the sinful world does. It doesn’t matter what type of clothes you wear, how many jewels adorn your head, or the size of your entourage. God is not impressed by such external means; thus we dare not put too much weight into them. Our value and worth should not be assessed by anything other than this—that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
I’m sure most of you already know and believe this. This is not breaking news. Afterall, this is the beautiful and timeless message of the Gospel. But it is a reminder we all need to hear from time-to-time. It feels good to bask in the love of the Creator. It is soothing to soak in the presence of a God who loves you. So perhaps I should say, “Thank you Mr. or Mrs. City Assessor.” Not for the FMV of my humble abode—but for the opportunity to use that now-trashed postcard as an instrument to preach God’s great love for us all. It can not be measured by a formula. It cannot be ascertained by simple or complicated equations. We are of infinite and beloved value to the Creator. Period. It’s an uplifting reminder to say the least. This is a message our world desperately needs to hear. Older people need to know that their value doesn’t age. All people need to know their value isn’t contingent on other relationships or job success. Young people especially need to hear this. The worth or our children and grandchildren is not dependent on how hard they can hit a baseball. It is not determined by how many A’s they can on their report card. It is contingent on their popularity. To each and every one of us, the scriptures declare, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Chosen. Holy. The Lord’s own possession. Now that’s an assessment worth plastering and proclaiming all over the place. Spread the word, take it for yourself, and rejoice in your value to the Creator. Put that on a postcard and mail it!
“Don't undervalue yourself. God loves you. Your worth is what you are worth to God. Jesus died for you. You are of infinite value.” (Nicky Gumble)
“Be kind to yourself. God thinks you’re worth his kindness. And he’s a good judge of character.” (Max Lucado)
“Jesus thought you were worth dying for. How rude not to agree with Him.” (Mark Lowry)
Later this summer, my son is playing in a week-long baseball tournament in Cooperstown, New York. It is an incredibly exciting opportunity. Once in a lifetime. They will play other teams from all over the country and create memories to last forever. But it is also a trip that is not cheap. The cost for this 6-day baseball getaway is cringeworthy indeed. All the parents on the team are now brainstorming ways to raise money. One such fundraiser is to sell spirit wear. This is not innovative; most teams and schools do this. We ask people to purchase all kinds of things—shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, umbrellas—with the SPARTA name and logo emblazoned on it. Not only will the team make money, but all our fans in the stands can proudly show their support. Just a quick glance, and you’ll know which team they are there to cheer for. It will be obvious by the colors they wear, the umbrellas they hold, the names they scream, and the banners they wave.
In the church, we have no such banners or team apparel. (Although, it could be cool to have some fun King of Kings swag to wear. Someday…) In the church, we have a different type of “spirit” wear that is not evident in logos or team colors. Instead, as the old hymn refrain declares, “… they will know we are Christians by our love.” As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in our lives. God lives within us. This is the gift of baptism. He literally dwells within us. None other than the Holy Spirit is active in our lives creating and sustaining us in the one true, saving faith. As such, how we live our lives should consistently display who we are and what we believe. During our past month of “stewardship” reflections, this has been the underlying premise. Our faith is what inspires us to invite others into the life of His church. Our faith is what pushes us out of our comfort area to care for others. Our faith is what nudges us to find ways to volunteer. Our faith is what motivates us to be good stewards of the countless gifts and abilities that the Lord has given to us. The faith that we have in God is not something we should only pull out for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. It needs to permeate every part of our lives. Our faith should impact how we treat each other, how we spend our money, how we conduct our business, how we interact with our coworkers, how we take care of ourselves, and so on. There is no compartment of our lives that should ever be disconnected from our discipleship with Jesus. To be sure, this is not easy. There is forgiveness for every time we fail, grace for all imbalances.
More than walking around decked out in crosses and clever churchy t-shirts, God says that our fandom and faithfulness should be evident in how we worship Him and interact with others. This is good news. We don’t have to purchase anything. In fact, God has paid the price already. So let us embrace and live in the freedom and forgiveness that comes with being a child of God. Rejoice. Be faithful. Let us make this evident to all—where we live, work, and play!
“If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” (unknown)
“Live in such a way that those who know you, but don't know God, will come to know God because they know you.” (unknown)
“How you express and live out your faith may have a greater impact on your son or daughter than anything else.” (Kara E. Powell)
“Our conduct is an advertisement for or against Jesus Christ.” (Elizabeth George)
I remember, before going to seminary, while working at a church in the Twin Cities area, thinking… “If I ever become a pastor, I will never talk about money.” After all, it is way more fun to talk about Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand people than talking about church finances and red-numbered budgets. At the time, it felt like all the church leadership did was talk about the need of money for different reasons and projects. That may not have been reality, but it was my perception in that moment. I was working in the church myself and it felt very off-putting. I could only imagine the consensus of the membership was similar. So naturally, I naively decided that if it were me in the pulpit, I would do it differently. I would never talk about money. Keep the cash out of the sermon. Talk about love, grace, and all that pleasurable (not off-putting) stuff. Even to this day, I do try to limit the amount of time we talk about money, but the reality is that Jesus spends more time talking about money and treasures than any other topic aside from the Kingdom of Heaven. What does this tell me? If such a topic is important enough for Jesus to talk about it, then apparently, we in His church, should continue this conversation. To be sure, we definitely want to temper our discussions and not overdo it. And we definitely do not want to use guilt or manipulation. Money is never the most important thing (that would be the Great Commission of last week’s blog), but it is a needed thing. Necessary to keep the church open, to bless others in the community, etc.
Hopefully, by now you have received the 2024 Stewardship Letter & Update from this Monday. Feel free to reach out if you missed it, or you want to re-read my incredibly eloquent words. In light of all this, I want to share with you this devotion below (blue italics) that came across my desk many months ago. It is very relevant to this topic and equally convicting. It was convicting to me when I first read it. Why? Because it tells me that the how I handle the material gifts of this world, can by symptomatic and quite revealing in regard to my relationship with the Lord. After I have paid for all the piano lessons, the softball registration, and the private baseball lessons… How do I consider my giving to the Lord? Am I giving Him my first fruits or barely what is left over? Is the Lord’s work a priority for me or is it not? Check it out:
I’ve been thinking about some words from Jesus. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:32-34).
I have to admit, that last sentence is one I’ve often misunderstood. I’ve usually thought, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” But that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In other words, Jesus encourages you to look at where you put your money. That’s how you can tell what’s really in your heart. We can say what we want about what we believe and value, but what you spend your money on is a clear indication of where your heart really is.
So where is your treasure? I don’t want to hear that question. I bet you don’t want to hear that question either. Why? Because we love money, and we love things, and we love the things we do with money. And we like to think that my money is separate from my relationship with God. “Don’t talk about money at church!” Except Jesus tells us that the opposite is true. My use of God’s money tells a lot about my relationship with God. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He’s right.
What’s amazing is that God applies that same statement to himself. Where his treasure is, there is his heart too. So where is God’s treasure? He tells you, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” God has an enormous chest of treasures – love, grace, forgiveness, blessings, the kingdom of heaven. What has he done with them? He has given them to us through Jesus our Savior. God has given you his treasure, and where God’s treasure is, there his heart is also – with you! What more could God give? God loves you more than anything in the world!
So where is your treasure? There your heart will be too.
So, what will this mean for YOU? What will this mean for the membership of our church?
Thank you for carefully and prayerfully considering this topic—as unpopular and not-fun as it may be. 😉
“Stewardship is not about raising money; it’s about raising Christians who willingly trust God.” (Unknown)
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10)
“No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” (Calvin Coolidge)
Hope you all were able to weather the storm the past two days. That was a lot of rain! As I write this, the sky is blue and the warm sun is beaming through the window. Yet at the same time, I can hear the sump pump in the basement of my house churning out water. It quite possibly has gone off more in the last 36 hours than it has in the previous 3 years we have lived here. In last week’s blast I shared my goals for our congregation in this New Year. The first one was to grow towards and then average 100 people in worship each week. The second goal is to maintain a healthy financial budget with no signs of red. More on that in the coming weeks, but today I would like to reflect on the first goal. As I shared last week, this does not come from a desire to impress others or “beat” the numbers of other churches. It is simply, but very seriously, taking Jesus’ great commission to heart. In the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we immediately see some surprising people worshiping the infant Jesus. The “magi from the East” were unexpected guests, but their mere presence declared a radical, awesome new reality for God’s Kingdom. (More on this in worship this coming Sunday 😉). This gospel then concludes with the words of Jesus, instructing and expecting His followers to be on the move and sharing the Good News with everyone. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
America, a nation on the go. We work, travel, exercise, play, and celebrate. Especially in this part of the country, we go. We get up early, work through lunch, and stay up late. We live by the clock and the digital watch and odometers. We lack sleep and sacrifice health. And we need “go power” to keep moving – breakfast cereals, power bars, energy drinks, vitamins, candy bars, and pep pills. There is no rest for the weary, we have to keep going, keep moving. Nevertheless, we frequently run out of gas and lie exhausted in front of the television.
Most of us would agree that some of this “going” makes little sense—like a hamster running pointlessly in his wheel but getting absolutely nowhere. However, there is one going that is of utmost importance. Not a going to get rich or to find thrills, but a going to make disciples of all nations, to share that Gospel Word power with family members, neighbors, co-workers, golfing partners, church friends, and people in other lands. Jesus speaks of it when He says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” With these words, Jesus declares and establishes the fundamental mission statement and guiding principle of every church. Do good deeds? Yes. Serve those who lack? Of course. Have great programs? Certainly. Engage the community? Without question. But the underlying goal of everything the church is and does must take the Great Commission to heart. If who we are and what we do does not invite people into a relationship with Jesus and the life of His bride, the Church, then we have lost our way. We have lost our identity. We must be “on the move” and “going” for the right reason—disciple making. Good reason for going. The only worthwhile reason.
Thus, this first goal for our church. For any church. We need to commit ourselves to the business of disciple making. This means we share the love and peace we have in Jesus. We let our faith shine forth. We shine the light of Christ. We unashamedly give answer for the hope that lives within us to those that we interact with at work, at home, and at play.
And where do we get the power for such going? Jesus answers that question on the Great Commission mountain. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,” the resurrected Jesus says. He supplies the Spirit-infused “go power” from His limitless supply. Crucified and risen from the dead, He offers forgiveness and endless refreshment. Through Word power – His Gospel – we receive all the “go power” we will ever need. He promises to be with us always, to the very end of the age. What comfort!
“The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.” (Hudson Taylor)
“Any church that is not seriously involved in helping fulfill the Great Commission has forfeited its biblical right to exist.” (Oswald J. Smith)
“The Great Commission will not be fulfilled if we only give our spare time or spare money.” (David Kim)
* Blog was inspired by and incorporated thoughts from LHM devotional, 1-24-2004.
Happy 4th Day of Christmas!
Hope that you all had a wonderful, healthy Christmas weekend!
The Christmas pageant in the small, neighborhood Episcopal church was a carbon copy of similar pageants around the country. Only in this one, in this year, at a critical moment, a little nine-year-old girl said something that people never forgot.
The manger was in front, as always. Young Mary wrapped in her blue mantle. Joseph sported a beard glued together from cotton balls. The wise men were there, too, as were the shepherds. And in the middle of them all, was baby Jesus, lying in the manger. The nativity story was read, carols were sung, everything went off without a hitch. Well…, almost. Various children were the angelic host. They were robed in white with little gold garland halos above their heads. They were sitting beside their moms and dads throughout the church. At the designated moment, they were to walk up front, circle the manger, and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.”
And so they did. But there was a problem.
As the little angelic children gathered round the manger to sing, one little girl couldn’t see. She was nine years old, smaller than the rest of them, and ended up being so far back that even on tiptoe she couldn’t see what was going on. In the momentary pause after the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest…,” this little girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked. She said, “Let Jesus show!”
Let. Jesus. Show.
I believe that service could have ended right there in that moment. No need for further preaching or proclamation. Let. Jesus. Show. Mic Drop! What more could be said? This little girl has an incredibly profound message that we can take to heart. We must. My hope, prayer, and goal is that our church is always a place where Jesus is clearly and proudly proclaimed. That we shine and show Jesus on Sunday morning (and every other day of the week). That when people walk in and worship with us in these walls, they would feel the love, hospitality, and kindness of Jesus in all that we say and do.
Certainly, as a church we must let Jesus show. But this is true for each of us on a personal level too. In these days of Christmas—and really any day thereafter—we need to make sure our view of Jesus is never obstructed. We dare not lose sight of our Savior because of the crowds and clutter around us. Worldly chaos is good at distracting us; it is good at irritating and frustrating us. There are far too many things in this world that loudly demand our time and attention. But in every moment, we remember those three clear words from that wise, yet innocent little girl... Let. Jesus. Show.
As you turn the calendar to a New Year, what is getting in your way?
What is blocking your view of Jesus?
“Look to Jesus this Christmas. Receive the reconciliation that he bought. Don’t put it on the shelf unopened. And don’t open it and then make it a means to all your other pleasures. Open it and enjoy the gift. Rejoice in him. Make him your pleasure. Make him your treasure.” (John Piper)
“Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God's throne.” (Hebrews 12:2 GNT)
*** H/T to author Chad Bird for initial pageant story.
What’s your least favorite Christmas song? A couple of days ago, I read an article that listed the most despised Christmas songs. From “Santa Baby” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” to “Christmas with the Chipmunks,” the article listed the most hated and annoying music during this time of the year. What is yours? For me it is easily Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Hands down. No contest. Skip to the next carol. The piercing noise of this song blasts unwanted through my earholes. This song is cringeworthy for a number of reasons. For almost a month I had successfully managed to avoid this song. Until we went to Zoo Lights at the Turtleback Zoo this past Saturday night. Soon after we entered the gates, we heard that song begin to pollute the open airwaves. Once they started blaring that song (at least twice in the short time we were there) over the loudspeakers, there was no way to avoid it. I couldn’t change the channel. Not able to hit the “thumbs down” button. I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t plug my ears. There was no safe place, nowhere to hide from this holly-junky anthem. Before long, my daughter and I were delightfully (obnoxiously) singing along to our least favorite tune. Truth be told, we may have ruined that song for several of other of our fellow zoo-goers. What is yours? Whatever the yuletide song that you enjoy the least this time of the year, we can usually evade it before it gets too firmly stuck into our head. We can change the station. We can turn off the radio. Easily avoidable.
What’s your least favorite Christmas movie? There are several movies my family loves to watch this time of the year. It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas until we watch “Elf” or “Christmas Vacation” and, of course, “A Christmas Story.” But there are also a few stinkers; and they’re not always from the Hallmark Channel. Is there a movie or two that makes you quickly look for something else to watch? Whatever the yuletide movie you enjoy the least this time of the year, we can usually elude it. Power down. Turn the channel. Stream something else. Easily avoidable.
What about THE story at Christmas? It does not start with a “Once upon a time…” There is no wintery scenery, with snow falling down, as the opening credits begin to roll. Instead, we hear these familiar and timeless words: “For unto you is born this day…” Ah yes, these beautiful words from the Gospel of Luke. Of course, you have heard this story many times. You know how it goes—a census… a trip to Bethlehem… no room in the inn… shepherds in the fields… angels in the sky… But will you slow down this coming weekend to really listen and internalize the divine message of God’s gift for you? Will you gaze in awe and worship the miracle of that first Christmas from 2000 years ago?
This year, over 90% of ALL Americans plan to celebrate Christmas. This percentage is true for those that self-identify as religious and for those that have no religious affiliation at all. Even among those that identify with a religion other than Christianity, close to 80% plan to celebrate Christmas. Of course, and sadly, this is the secularized Santa-Claus version of Christmas. They have the gifts, the cookies, and the matching family pajamas. They watch the same Hallmark movies and listen to the same Rudolph and Frosty songs. But they lack the manger; there is no “good news of great joy.” Walking through my neighborhood, many families who have recently celebrated the Hindu festivals of Diwali, now display Christmas trees from their front windows. What gives? Talk about mixed messages or crossing signals. What happened to Jesus? In far too many homes, the very namesake for this holiday has become an afterthought. The truest and most pure message of CHRISTmas, the reason for the season, has become as easily and frequently avoidable as our least favorite songs and movies.
If you have an extra 2 minutes, check out this fun video. It’s clever and on point. Although I won’t be using it in worship this weekend, I still wanted to share it. Be intentional; don’t avoid the heart of this weekend’s celebration. It is far too easy to get overwhelmed in the family gatherings and office parties of this season. It is far too easy to become sidetracked and distracted that our Christmas festivities look no different than our secularized neighbors. So many of these things can make the Christmas season more than it is, but less than it should. Don’t replace baby Jesus this Christmas!
“Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.” (original author unknown)
Yesterday, during our Advent Luncheon gathering, we discussed the Advent concept and promise of peace. Like any past Miss America contestant, we all would love to see “world peace” achieved in our lifetime. It’s the perfect answer for any wannabe politician or philosophical savant. It fixes everything. Who wouldn’t want to give peace a chance? Tis also the season for songs to yearn for “peace on earth” and yet we see just the opposite flood the daily new cycles. Wars. Violence. Hatred. Judgement. The work of Satan, the rattler of peace, is on full, heartbreaking display. As we often understand it, peace is certainly desirable, but it is also very unattainable. Dictionary.com defines peace as the “non-warring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.” More than detailing what it is, it speaks to what it is not. The problem with regulating peace to a secular definition of only the absence of war or conflict, is that we don’t come close enough to what God’s intention for peace is. God offers His people a peace that is absolutely available here and now—a “peace that surpasses all human understanding and will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (cf. Phil. 4)
The word PEACE is common in most languages. People can talk about peace treaties or times of peace; it universally means the absence of war. In the Bible, the word peace can refer to the absence of conflict; but it also points to the presence of something better in its place. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for peace is shalom. The most basic meaning of shalom is complete or whole. The word can refer to a stone that has a perfect whole shape with no cracks. It can also refer to a completed stone wall that has no gaps and no missing bricks. Shalom refers to something that’s complex with lots of pieces, but that is in a state of completeness, wholeness. Think of Job who says his tents are in a state of shalom because he counted his flock, and no animals are missing. Shalom can also refer to a person’s well-being. Like when David visited his brothers on the battlefield, he asked about their shalom. The core idea is that life is complex—full of moving parts and relationships and situations—and when any of these are out of alignment or missing, your shalom breaks down. Life is no longer whole. Peace is absent. It needs to be restored. But how does this happen?
Do you remember the song “Let there be Peace on Earth?” I don’t recall who originally wrote it, but it has been covered by many artists. The repeated verse says “Let there be peace on earth… And let it begin with me.” Although I can appreciate the sentiment behind the song, it also completely misses the mark. Indeed, we should all strive to live peacefully with one another. The Apostle Paul tells us this very thing. It is also the very force behind Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if “peace on earth” in any capacity is up to me, we’re all in trouble! The same is true for any one of us. We may have moments where we work towards peace, but our own sinfulness and brokenness will eventually limit the extent to which peace can overflow into this world. Walking with each other in perfect harmony is not something that will ever happen if peace begins with me, or you, or anyone else. Peace on earth will never be fully realized when we look within ourselves—to governmental parties, motivational seminars, or worldly cliches.
That’s a hidden reality in the message of Christmas. Peace cannot permeate the world without an outside force. The inbreaking of God in human flesh is the answer to a world that is no longer whole, that needs to be put back together. Humans cannot establish or cultivate peace, only God can do that. Only God can restore. This is why Jesus’s birth in the New Testament was announced as the arrival of eirene (cf. Luke 2:14); in the New Testament the Greek word for peace is eirene. Jesus came to offer His peace to others like when He said to His followers, “My peace I give to you all” (cf. John 14:27). Advent peace is a worshipful recognition that Jesus has restored what was no longer whole, what was broken. And what is that? YOU! The peace that we are given as Christians does not hinge on the circumstances around us. It is not defined by what is lacking, but by what we have. We have Jesus! This peace is found in knowing that we are beloved children of God who have been completely restored and redeemed by our Savior. Our peace, this Advent and all year round, is found in knowing that our God who restored us through His cross, is always with us and still growing us towards wholeness. In this second week of Advent, we place ourselves in the posture of God’s people of the Old Testament, groaning for and excitedly awaiting their Messiah. We too eagerly await the (second) coming of the Prince of Peace.
“All you beneath your heavy load, by care and guilt bent low,
Who toil along a dreary way with painful steps and slow:
Look up, for golden is the hour, come swiftly on the wing,
The Prince was born to bring you peace; of Him the angels sing.” (LSB 366, stz. 3)
“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (C.S. Lewis)
“The peace of God is first and foremost peace with God; it is the state of affairs in which God, instead of being against us, is for us. No account of God's peace which does not start here can do other than mislead.” (J.I. Packer)
I recently came across this statement, “If you get to December 25th and you are sick of Christmas, then you didn’t do Advent correctly.” Has this happened to you? Have you been exhausted by Christmas? Have you wished these festive days away? Have you found yourself stuck in yuletide survival mode?
We’ve all been there. So, what does it mean to do Advent correctly? Advent starts this Sunday. It is a season of preparation and waiting. It is a season in the church year designed to fix our eyes on the coming of the Lord, the return of our Savior Jesus. It is a countercultural season calling us to slow down as the world moves around us in a fa-la-la-la-la frenzy. Advent reminds us that the Savior who came before in a Bethlehem stable, whose Spirit lives with us still now, will come again. Jesus is coming back. So, during the Advent season we “stay awake and keep alert” (cf. Mark 13:35-37) as we anticipate His return.
Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find any semblance of Advent in our world today. Stores quickly shifted their shelving displays from Halloween to Christmas—with perhaps a small hiatus for Thanksgiving in between. In fact, many stores have already sold out of certain Christmas items and décor. Earlier this week, the only gingerbread houses I found were ones that crumbled during the earthquakes of their shipping and shelving. Even before the last bites of Thanksgiving turkey have been gobbled up and devoured, the Christmas specials have commenced on TV and the non-stop, holly-jolly tunes saturate the airwaves. Even at my home and here at church, there are no lack of Christmas decorations present. They are out and on full display. Even the most faithful Christians can skip through these four weeks to get to the glow of a glitzy, tinsel-filled holiday. As such, before it “begins to look a lot like Christmas,” we need to hit the holiday brakes and make a stop at Advent’s rest area. We need the season of Advent to prep for Christmas—and not in the more time to shop or more cookies to bake sort of prep. But in the “waiting for the revelation of Jesus Christ who will sustain you to the end” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7) sort of preparation.
A celebration of Christmas will only be upgraded and enriched if we take time to do Advent correctly. Before we get to Christmas it is good to go back to the age-old stories and prophecies. It’s natural to want to “skip to the good parts,” but when we look back, we see that God’s people have often anxiously longed for God to show up and do away with the bad. Over years, decades, and centuries, God repeatedly reminded His people of His promise to deliver them. So, we also, during the four weeks of Advent, cherish and anticipate the hope of God’s people. The more we remember that the people of God have always been “waiting” people, the more we have hope that God is still at work and still with us. During Advent in our church, we will prepare for Christmas by revisiting the prophets, singing the carols, rereading the gospels, and lighting the candles that re-energize our hope, peace, joy, and love. Then we will be better equipped to come alongside Mary and Joseph to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn.
Most Christians are pretty good at celebrating Christmas. It’s kind of our thing. We thrive on it. It’s what we do. But let’s not get there too fast! Slow down and celebrate the simplicity of this waiting season. Join us in worship—before December 24th—and do Advent the right way!
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside – is not a bad picture of Advent.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” (Bill McKibben)
A little boy of six was invited to his neighbor’s home for a meal. As soon as all were seated at the table the food was served. The little boy was puzzled, and with a child’s frankness asked, “Don’t you say a prayer before you eat?” The host was uncomfortable and mumbled, “No, we don’t take time for that.” The boy thought silently for a while, and said, “Oh, you’re just like my dog. You just dive right in.”
Do you ever dive into something without the Lord? I think we can all agree that life is not always what we expected. We all have our stories. For all the peaks, we also must go through our fair share of valleys. Whatever your journey has been, it does not change the goodness of God. You don’t give thanks if you don’t believe someone deserves the thanks. Thanksgiving for Christians is awareness of who God is and what He has done. It does not mean we don’t recognize that there are difficulties, it simply—yet profoundly—means we stand upon a greater reality. God is on the throne and deserves praise!
We have much to be thankful for each Thanksgiving and each day. Our highest thanksgiving comes from the gift of Jesus our Savior. God has given us everything in Christ; therefore, we thank and praise Him, serve and obey Him. “Thank the Lord and sing his praise; tell everyone what he has done” (offertory, LSB). Each day will not go as we would like it to go. This is undeniable truth. There will be disasters, storms, and diagnoses. It recalls another cute story of a little boy who was asked to pray for dinner. Before he bowed his head to pray, he looked at the dish. Then, closing his eyes he prayed, “Lord, I don’t like the looks of it, but I’ll thank you and eat it anyway.” Such is life in a broken world; sometimes we won’t like the looks of things. Yet we remember to stay faithful and stand resilient. Whatever dish life puts before us, we eat it knowing that our God is right beside us. We dare not let our circumstances squash our faith. Through the many challenges we encounter, the devil would have us doubt and question God. At those moments let us go the Psalms and other passages in God’s Holy Word for comfort and assurance. One that I recall is from Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
Keep rejoicing my friends. Give thanks and have a blessed Thanksgiving!
I’m grateful for you all!
“A bad moment for an atheist is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank.” (G.K. Chesterton)
“What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” (unknown)
“Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.” (George W. Bush)
I’m a hero.
That’s right. You read that correctly.
No doubt, many of you probably hold me in this high regard already; but allow me to explain.
This past Monday night I took Collin to a private coaching session for baseball. After a brief introduction and some basic mechanics from the coach, we stepped outside into the chilly fall air. This coach has a fully-enclosed batting cage in his backyard, complete with plenty of lights and pitching machine. Collin and I were both a tad bit jealous and dreamed of having one in our own backyard. Nevertheless, just as Collin was about to start taking live swings, we noticed a little rabbit caught in the netting way back in the corner of the cage. One line drive to the far-left corner of the cage would have sent that bunny into baseball oblivion, much like this poor bird. Talk about having a bad hare day! Fortunately, we saw the bunny caught before any pitches were thrown. So, the final 30 minutes of our lesson was spent trying to set him free. Easier said than done. Of course, the more this young bunny realized that he was trapped in the netting, the more he panicked. He flipped around with such reckless abandon that what was once, one foot caught had now become 3 legs caught and netting wrapped around his neck. Long story short, we were able to finally cut the rabbit free. After all the netting that entrapped him was cut loose, the bunny laid on the ground, still a bit shell-shocked, before finally scampering back to his home under the nearby shed. Hopefully to live hoppily ever after.
On our way home, this Bible verses came to mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrew 12:1) The image of that poor rabbit violently bouncing around, trying desperately to get himself free, loudly preaches to the reality of sin. The more the bunny panicked and the more he attempted, the more stuck he became. You could see the struggle and fear in his big black eyes. What was once just a single leg had gotten far worse; and the gravest part was that the net was now wrapped around his neck multiple times. There was no way, that poor rabbit, would have broken free. If he had survived the onslaught of baseballs, he would eventually have died from the cold, starvation, or a passing-by predator. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to cast off and throw away anything that seeks to entangle us. Any sin. Any false priority. Any misplaced adoration. Any potential pitfall. If it seeks to remove our gaze from the Creator, it will eventually trap us in a no-win situation. Of course, sin is not something we can cut ourselves loose from. There is no amount of twisting or maneuvering that can shake us free. There exists no spiritual scissors strong enough to cut through the nets of sin we often find ourselves underneath. To put it bluntly, we cannot be the hero of our own story. The more we try to master the Devil who seeks to devour us, the more entangled and helpless we become. If we try to fight on our own, we will end up exhausted, defeated and without hope. As our opening liturgy reminds us of each week in worship, “We cannot free ourselves from our own sinful condition.”
But the good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to free ourselves. Allow me to bring back to mind this uplifting verse of the Reformation hymn we sang a couple of weeks ago. Verse 2 of A Mighty Fortress says: “No strength of ours can match his [the devil’s] might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is He, Christ Jesus Mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.”
Jesus Christ comes to battle and sets us free from all that entangle us. By His merciful acts, we are cut loose from the stranglehold of sin, death, and the devil. Our struggles cease and instead we can rejoice in what God does for us. Having no power to set ourselves free by own might or right, God breaks into his world to do the dirty work on our behalf. Suffering. Desertion. Crucifixion. Death. This was the excruciating price Jesus paid, so that we can know what it means to be restored and released from bondage. This is how we are held victorious. Now, as His redeemed and restored children, we can excitedly scamper back to the eternal homes that await us. We give thanks and we worship Jesus. The Hebrews writer continues on, “…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb. 12:2-3) The English word ‘consider’ leaves so much to be desired. We do more than consider him, we reflect on all that He endured on our behalf, and we worship Him. We thank Him for the love, life, and forgiveness that He brings. We think deeply and intentionally how His act of salvation changes everything for our lives. We rejoice over the fact that we need not be weary or lose heart because He still promises, even today, that He is always with us. Whenever something entangles us, we throw it off—by the power of and in the name of Jesus.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus is our hero.
He is our champion.
Thanks be to God!
“The Gospel is the only story where the hero dies for the villain.” (unknown)
“One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.” (Gordon D. Fee)
“The kids look at me, 'Ah, you're my hero.' I want to teach those kids. 'Hey listen, God is my hero. He died on the cross for my sins, and He's the one. That's how I wanna live, like Him, and I want you guys to do the same thing.” (MLB player, Albert Pujols)
Pastor Steve Vera