Saturday, December 31, 2016

Free those held in slavery by fear of death

It might seem strange to jump from the Christmas story to Hebrews.  Aren’t we supposed to talk about the Magi on the one the Sundays after Christmas?  How did we get to Hebrews?  We don’t even know who wrote it and yet it is in our Bibles.

In the spirit of Christmas, we are going to look at this bundle of joy wrapped up in swaddling clothes from the perspective of the author of Hebrews.  Just who is this child?  What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping.
We know from the Bible and the verses that follow in the song that this is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing.

The author of Hebrews adds a few more.  Most of us remember this one.  He is the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith or some prefer the Author and Finisher of our faith.  But in Hebrews we gain even more insight into the person we celebrated at Christmas as a Babe in a manger.

·     He is heir of all things.  

This Jesus that we claim as our Savior and Lord and Master stepped out of heaven to enter this world as helpless baby and endure the human life.  He made himself lower than the angels for a time so he could live completely as a person like you and me.

The human child is perhaps the most helpless of all of God’s creatures at birth.  Many animals stand upright, though a bit wobbly, moments after birth.  The sea turtle after getting a mouthful of sand heads for the ocean.  The human child is virtually helpless in all things.

But Jesus stepped out of the heavenly realm into this harsh world in a helpless state for us.  He is all the things that were just mentioned, and more: yet he came into this world as a child fully dependent upon human parents.

When I went to Africa, part of the introduction was that I had come from my comfortable bed in America to preach the good news and teach pastors and church leaders.  Of all the things that our friends in Africa valued, the comfortable bed seemed to be among the best.  They could have mentioned air conditioning, modern indoor plumbing, highways in which paved meant more than splotches of asphalt every few miles for aesthetic effect; but they mentioned comfortable beds.

Imagine leaving everything that we take for granted in America and living in primitive fashion for a couple of weeks.  Most don’t want to go after looking at the bathroom facilities.

Now consider stepping out of heaven into the domain of humankind and being at the mercy of a human mother and father for your first couple of years.  Consider stepping out of paradise into a world where sin and death prevail.  

Consider that on top of just giving up the perfection of the divine realm, entering into this world was accompanied by the purpose of being a sacrifice for sin.  Human birth would require a human death, not from old age but from crucifixion.

I’m thinking that I might have wanted to hang out in heaven a couple more millennia and just sent out a universal tweet that said, “Get your act together or burn in hell.”

But God is love and his love is for his entire creation, but especially for us.  The psalmist queried the Creator of all things and asked, who are we that you are mindful of us?  Just how did we deserve your attention, much less your love?

But we received much more than God’s attention.  We received life, real life, and eternal life through this Jesus who came into our world as a Babe in a manger and lived the human life for over three decades until it ended brutally on a cross.  He came so that we could live and yet so many live as if he never came.

Too many see salvation only as a get out of hell free card.  So many see believing in Jesus just only as a way to escape the flames of perdition.  So many see salvation only in terms of what we have escaped and not what we have come into.

Many of God’s Chosen People idolized Moses.  He led them out of slavery in Egypt.  That was a great thing and the Passover was the remembrance of these mighty acts of God effected through Moses. But the story of Moses is incomplete with considering that the Promised Land was realized through Joshua.

Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  Joshua led God’s people into the Promised land.  The people are incomplete without both parts of the story.

Jesus delivered us from slavery to sin and death.  For some that’s the definition of salvation, but for those who seek after the Lord, that definition is incomplete.  We have escaped death but we have entered into life and realized our salvation.  Our salvation is more than an escape; it is knowing the fullness of a life lived for Christ.

Oswald Chambers once wrote:  “All of heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, hell afraid of it, while men are the only ones to ignore its meaning.”

It’s time to stop minimizing the work done on the cross and live as people responding to the greatest gift of love ever known.  It is time to live knowing the work on the cross was complete.  We are a forgiven people.  We are fully—completely—loved by God and that’s forever.
Let’s quit doubting that!

Here is our struggle as believers seeking the fullness of salvation in Christ.  God placed everything under Jesus.  There is nothing that is not subject to his authority; yet, in the present age we do not see everything behaving as if it is subject to Jesus.  The creation still seems to be acting up like a rebellious teenager.

Our challenge as disciples is to live fully in the freedom that Christ gave us in a world that does not yet know it belongs to him.  Our challenge as a disciple is—borrowing a phrase from Paul—to live by faith and not by sight.

We can’t see the creation in complete obedience to God just yet but we can see Jesus—that is we can know Jesus as the way and the truth and the life as John’s gospel quoted our Savior. 

We can stop short if we want at the get out of hell free card or we can live as God has intended us to live from the inception of the world. 

It is a new year and while we have arrived with the same bodies and minds that we ended the previous year; somehow, we are disposed to raising the bar of our expectations at this time of year.

What if, we began this year knowing with certainty that the blood of Jesus took away my sin and that death—separation from God—is not something that I will ever know.  I have been saved by the blood of Jesus.  I am redeemed.  I have been rescued.  Sin and death do not own me anymore.

Now get rid of those two words—what if

Begin this year knowing with certainty that the blood of Jesus took away my sin and that death—separation from God—is not something that I will ever know.  I have been saved by the blood of Jesus.  I am redeemed.  I have been rescued.  Sin and death do not own me anymore.

What if that is our starting point for this new year?  Now, let’s remove the what if from that statement.  That is our starting point for this year.  We will only revisit these things in a spirit of thanksgiving to our Lord who rescued us.  We will not wrestle with them.  The fires of hell or eternal separation from God are things that we will never know and we will stop fighting battles that are already won.

OK.  I’m in.  So what is next?

Living!  Living fully and completely doing our very best to bring glory to God.

Mark Twain once said:  "The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why."

Isn’t it time to find out the “why” of our lives.  Isn’t it time to live the purpose that God gave us.  Isn’t it time to stop going from one day to the next and just live this day as fully as you can trying your very best to bring glory to God?

Isn’t it time to take the gifts and talents and abilities that we have and put them to use fully and completely without any hint of doubt.

We have been set free from sin and death having power in our lives.  What we do in response to that should be to please God.  Isn’t it time to start living the “why” of our lives with everything that we have and that we are.

Too often we try to equate the “why” of our lives with educational and vocational choices.  Too often we try to restrict the why of our lives to our geography, or genealogy, or even  the chronology of events. 

We come to know the “why” of our lives as we come to know Jesus more and more.  In the year ahead we will study many of the parables of Jesus.  Parables give us unique insight because Jesus has unique insight into heaven and into living a human life.  Parables set one thing beside the other.

In the year ahead, I challenge you to permeate you prayer life with the words, “Lord, your will not mine.”  Do it without fear.  That means without caveat to your prayers.  What do I mean?

Lord, I am yours.  I am ready to do whatever you have planned for me, with the following exceptions…

This year, let’s take a big step in discipleship and just pray, “Thy will be done.”

This year, begin or continue in a serious reading plan.  Make it more than what we are reading for Sunday school or Wednesday night groups.  Just set out on a course of reading that is just you and God.

This year, live in hope.  Too many Christians forget that hope is a big part of who we are.  The author of Hebrews said we can’t see everything coming into obedience to God but we know that it will because we know Jesus.  We live knowing that everything will one day be reconciled.  We live in joyful obedience to God now not having to wait for someday.

In the year ahead, start doing things that you might have been afraid to do because of what others might think of you.  Fear does not govern in our lives.  Perfect loves casts out fear.  Jesus is our Lord.  We live to please him and not public opinion.

In the year ahead, take the first steps to reconcile relationships that are broken.  Be the first because we are not afraid of failure in our human relationships.  Our relationship with our Lord is intact and permanent and that gives us permission to be bold where there is brokenness among us.

In the year ahead, live as if Jesus really is your friend.  We are his brothers and sisters.  We can live with the utmost reverence and in the most intimate friendship.  The two are not exclusive.  He is Lord.  He is friend.  He is God.  He is Brother.

Sportscasters talk about playing in the zone.  That’s what we should be doing as his disciples.  Fear does not come into play.  Fear has been taken out of the picture.  We are liberated from death and now we live liberated from the fear of death.

Jesus is the captain of our salvation.  That’s a cool title but what it translates to is that Jesus is saying “Follow Me,” and we as his brothers and sisters need to do so because he is our Lord and because he is our teammate. 

We respond by saying “Thy will be done.”  We respond knowing that his will is the best will for us and contained within that will is the “why “of our lives.

We respond by living the words of the psalmist as he said, “Calm down, stop fighting, be still and know that God will bring everything into order.”  God is God and he is on our side.  He is with us and wants us to live completely.  He wants us out of fearing anything in the world to include death.

Let’s be still and know that God is God and he is not letting go of us.

Jesus, our High Priest and closest Friend, knows what it is to live in these fleshly vessels and he has liberated us to live without fear of death. 

He has atoned for our sins, actively makes intercession for us, and wants us to live fully liberated from the fear of the world and the fear of death.  Jesus wants us to live in the zone.

Today’s message is about heading into a new year unencumbered by fear, ready to really live for Jesus, and in the words, “Thy will be done,” fully expectant of knowing the “why” of our lives.

That’s a year that I am looking forward to living.

Happy New Year and Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

We love the Christmas Story

We love the Christmas Story and mostly we love it in Luke’s gospel.  Mark skips it altogether.  John gets it squeezed into one versethe Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.  Merry Christmas! 

Paul even sneaks in a quick Christmas story

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  Merry Christmas!

Matthew gives us a little insight into the earthly parents of Jesus, a visit from the Magi, and a hasty exit to Egypt.  Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus; but it is Luke’s gospel that truly sets the grand stage.

The world of those days was the Roman world.  A man by the name of Octavian had succeeded the first man to be Caesar of Rome, that being Julius Caesar.  Octavian had taken on the name of Augustus Caesar and after consolidating his power, he declared that a census would be taken of every  part of the world under Roman control. 

That included those living in what was given to the Hebrew people as a Promised Land.  Had there been no census, Joseph and Mary would have had no reason to travel to the City of David—to Bethlehem.  Nazareth in Galilee would have been their natural homestead and a trip to Bethlehem would have been a hundred miles of travel that no pregnant woman would inflict upon herself.   But the Savior of the world was to be born in the City of David.  So the Christmas Story takes on a global nature from the beginning.  What that meant to Joseph and Mary was 3 days of traveling while very close to Mary’s delivery date.

And of course, there was no room at the inn.  To make sure that the Savior of the world was born in the humblest of estates, there was no room at the inn.  We are probably not talking Motel 6 or the Hilton Garden.  There were just no rooms available in the places where Joseph knew to look. 

So this Christ child would not be born in a palace or even in a fine hotel.  He would be born where the livestock gathered at night.  There would be little comfort for this child that would step from his place in the heavenly realms to the humblest of dwellings.

But the birth of this child would not be treated as a small thing.  Angels, in fact a heavenly host, announced his entry into our domain and proclaimed glory to God because of it.  God’s love and peace were bursting into the world, albeit in a small bundle in a place that resembled a pasture more than a palace.

Of course the angels frighten the shepherds and then tell them not to be afraid.  Eventually, these men out guarding their sheep at night decide to go check out this news delivered in angelic symphony.  They were in the same area.  God had sent them messengers and told them what the sign would be for a reason.  How could they not go check this out for themselves?

And it was just as the angels told them and as they left they shared what the angels had told them and what they had seen.

Away in a Manger, Silent Night, The First Noel, and other songs paint these Christmas images for our modern minds as we try to picture such primitive conditions in a faraway place from two millennia ago.  There is mystery and majesty and yes, it even seems like magic—the Disney sort of magic—in this Christmas story.

Why is it special to us?

We don’t get all that excited about reading Paul’s letters.  There is not a whole lot of anticipation to a theological crescendo that we might find in Romans 8.  The gospels and Acts are full of miracles but the Christmas story is what gives us chills and smiles and that warm fuzzy feeling inside.

The Psalms are special but they just don’t hit us in the same way that the Christmas story does.

We love the Christmas story.  And why shouldn’t we?

God comes to earth as a baby.  He is not sitting on a throne.  He is not riding a white horse.  He is born to a young lady.  It is her first child.  She is away from home.  She delivers in some makeshift shelter.  There is no delivery room or midwife or EMT on the scene. 

There are no insurance forms to fill out.  There is no waiting room for Joseph to pace back and forth within.  He is doctor, nurse, orderly, and did not even have to check the block on the admissions form that elected NATURAL CHILDBIRTH. 

It doesn’t get much more natural than this. 
But the entire creation has waited for this moment.  God’s creation has longed for this child.

Joseph is probably thinking, “This kid looks all wrinkled and covered with goo to be the Son of God.” but this child is the Son of God.

This Christmas story is special to us because it is intended to be special.  God wants us not only to know his great love but to know that love is not a commodity.  Love is not just a quality.  Love is more than emotion.  Love is more than a verb and action and sacrifice.  God is love and in this story that we know all so well, we get to know a little more about the Love that spoke everything into existence and longs so much for everything to be at peace with him.

Our story of Love comes with sheep and shepherds and a manger and a very bright start in the sky.  It is meant to be told and retold again as if it were new each time.

This story, this Christmas story is a story of peace and good will and we should feel good each time we tell it and each time that we hear it.

So today, let’s not get too theological.  Let’s not overanalyze Luke’s pericope.  Let’s not overthink these scriptures.  Let’s just enjoy them.

Let the words be music to our hearts and bring peace to our souls.

Let them bring the joy of the season.

Let them take us to that place where we truly celebrate Christmas.

Let us hear a small part of the story once again, this time in the King James Version.  This is how many of us heard the story as we grew up.  It doesn’t explain anything any better. 

It’s just the story we know.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Joseph, being a righteous man...

I bought some new Christmas lights for our back courtyard.  Libby and Logan like the courtyard lights that weave in and around the barren vegetation.  I leave them up all year but many have burned out so they need to be replaced.   I will put up the new ones when I get around to it.

I have Microsoft Office 365 on my computer.  It does way more than the old office suite did and the old one did more stuff than I will ever use.  I will learn some of the new stuff when I get around to it.

I always have two or three ideas for a new book floating around in my head, one of these days—when I get around to it—I will write them.

There is a message coming soon, if I will get around to it.

Joseph, the son of Jacob who was in the line of King David, had a lot to think about.  He and a girl named Mary were engaged to be married.  It was called a betrothal.  That’s like engagement without egress.  You couldn’t just call it off if you didn’t want to follow through with the marriage; you had to get a divorce.

So betrothal is almost like marriage except it’s not betrothal with benefits.  The couple would remain celibate until the wedding.  The problem was that Mary had become pregnant and Joseph was not the father.  That throws a big hitch in your get-a-long.

Joseph could have made a public spectacle of the whole deal, maybe even had Mary stoned.  I would think that though crossed his mind several times since he got the news that his wife-to-be was knocked up. 

Mary had probably told Joseph what the angel told her, but realize that is a tough pill to swallow for any man.  The Holy Spirit got you pregnant

Most of the time we consider this from a cynical, but probable perspective.  Yeah right, Mary.  I thought I knew you even though I never knew you in the biblical sense, but somebody obviously did.  But this is not the only perspective.

Realize that this concept was not foreign to Joseph.  Isaiah had prophesied a virgin birth with the child being called Emanuel meaning God with us.  This pericope tells us that Joseph was a righteous man.  He lived according to the law.  He had surely attended synagogue and knew the prophecies.

Let’s speculate on Joseph’s potential thoughts than were not so cynical. It could happen, but to my girl?  What are the odds?  And if it is her, where do I fit in?

Joseph had resolved in his mind just to quietly get out of the picture by divorcing Mary.  Even if Mary was lying and she had conceived by another man, he still did not want her disgraced any more than the world would bring on its own.  If she was telling the truth, could he even be a part of her life anymore?  How did that equation work?  Did he just get kicked to the curb courtesy of the Holy Spirit?  There was no model to go by here.

It’s amazing that Joseph could get any sleep at night, but he did; and an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in his sleep and confirmed to him that the child was of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph was to take Mary as his wife.  Furthermore, Joseph was to name the child Jesus. 

In two short verses we find three important pieces of information delivered to Joseph while he slept.

1.  The child was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
2.  Joseph was to take Mary as his wife.
3.  Joseph would serve as human father.  The father did the naming of the son.  That was his right and duty.

Joseph was told what to name the child and that name was Jesus.  The child who was God with us would go by the earthly name of Jesus.  That’s the modern English version of the name anyway.

About half a year earlier, an angel had appeared to a man—a priest—named Zechariah.  This took place in the temple.  Zechariah, unlike Joseph, was an old man who had been married for years.  He had no children and had pretty much written off being a father, even though he prayed for that very thing.

In this encounter, the angel told Zechariah that God had heard his prayer and was giving him a son and he would be called John.  Zechariah was a bit on the skeptical side.  He was an old man and his wife was no spring chicken either.  So, he asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?”

Have you ever been to a class where the instructor begins by saying that there are not stupid questions?  That’s not true.  One such question might be to ask an angel of the Lord, “Well, just how can I be sure of this?”

Gabriel’s reply was threefold.

1.  I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God.  Those are good credentials.
2.  I am bringing you good news from God himself.  He has answered your prayers.
3.  Because you are such a knucklehead, you are not going to say a word until this very special child is born and you name him John.  You had better stock up on #2 pencils and Big Chief tablets.
  That question amounted to the last words that Zechariah said for about 9 months.  We know that the child to be conceived by Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth would be named John and Zechariah would get his speech back and the Christ would have the promised forerunner in the spirit of Elijah that we know as John the Baptist.

So we consider two men, Joseph and Zechariah, who each received some interesting news about babies on their horizon.  Neither was expected.  Sure, Joseph surely thought that he would have kids someday, after the marriage was completed and consummated in the usual way.  Zechariah thought that he and Elizabeth had missed the boat on the kid business.  Both had news contrary to their own expectations.

Zechariah was skeptical.  He was in the presence of an angel of the Lord.  He was given a very personal message of good news. He had some doubts.

Joseph was a young man who surely had great expectations for his life with Mary.  Those plans were interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy—at least it wasn’t in his plans.  Mary surely had told him it was part of God’s plan.  In his sleep, an angel of the Lord told Joseph to take Mary as his wife.

He awoke, and I am guessing that he did not wake immediately as having this affirmation and resolution in his mind, he probably got the best night’s sleep that he had enjoyed for several days.  But when he did awake, he went straightaway and took Mary as his wife.

The angel said, here is what God is telling you to do.  Joseph did it.

He didn’t say, “What will my mom and dad think?”

He didn’t say, “What will my friends think?”

He didn’t say, “What kind of trouble will I be in if I botch up bringing up the Son of God?”

He didn’t say or think, “Yeah, okay, when I get around to it.”

He went and took Mary as his wife.

Which brings us to Marine Corps boot camp.  It is the longest of all the services.  It creates in those who stay the course and become Marines a quality of instant, willing obedience to orders. 

1.  Instant.
2.  Willing.
3.  Obedience.

Once instilled, the rest of a Marine’s training, development, and life for that matter is mostly about leadership and technical skill.  That is because at the foundation are instant, willing obedience.

These come without consideration of danger, personal loss, or even ridicule.  I am not sure when Joseph went to Marine Corps boot camp but he displayed these exact qualities—instant, willing, obedience.

God told him what to do and he got with the program right away.  There was no further deliberation.  There was no when I get around to it.  Joseph went and took Mary as his wife and acknowledging that the child was from God, he did not have sexual relations with her until after this child conceived by the Holy Spirit was born.


In this coupling of earthly parents, Mary often gets most of the attention.  We don’t know what happened to Joseph later on, but we get glimpses of Mary in the gospels all the way to the cross; where from the cross Jesus appointed John the disciple to take care of Mary as his own mother.  Mary gets the headlines.  After all, she was blessed among women.

But let’s give Joseph his due.  He manned up to the task that God had given him.  He didn’t drag his feet about it.  It was a tough situation and he was struggling to work it out on his own, but when God told him, “Here is how you are going to handle this;” he did not hesitate.

He took Mary as his wife.

I visualize in my own mind Joseph pulling up to Mary’s parents’ house on his donkey.  He has no idea that he and Mary will need that ride for a trip to Bethlehem soon.  He goes in and Mary is a little unsettled.  Joseph says, “It was going to be one of three things:  stoning, divorce, or marriage.”  God told me it was number 3, so get packed we are headed to my place, wife.

Joseph with a somewhat devious grin looks at Mary’s parents and says, “I am saving you guys a ton on wedding expenses.  Do you know how hard it is to find a maternity sized bridal gown in this town?”

He took Mary as his wife.

Today, we celebrate Advent and Christmas but we should also take this day and do a little self-inventory inspired by the person of Joseph.

Do we try to fit God into our box of personal expectations?

Do we try to limit the Creator and Savior of the world to the what of our situations and the how of our finite minds?

Must we expect limited solutions from a limitless God? 

Are we afraid to hear what God is saying to us?  What if it takes me out of my comfort zone?  What if it is different than the plan that I have sketched out for my life or different from my plan for this year or just not what I wanted to do for the next 10 minutes?  What if?

It’s probably a little early to talk about New Year’s resolutions, but if you are running short of things to put on your list, try these three.

1.  Get rid of the words if only and what if.  Sometimes you may need them but 99% of the time they just get in the way of doing what you know to do.
2.  Get rid of the words around to it (Round Tuit).  How do you subtly kill willing obedience or even our own initiative?  By saying, when I get around to it.
3.  Obey God instantly and willingly.  Just do it.  He really does know what he is doing.

Joseph was in a tough spot but he was a righteous man.  That did not make his situation any easier.  Facts are facts.  Mary’s pregnant and it wasn’t me.

Facts are facts, but God is God and when his messenger says, “Take Mary as your wife,” then you take Mary as your wife and you do it with dragging your feet and you do it wholeheartedly.

The blood of Jesus made us right with God.  Like Joseph, we are righteous people too.  Isn’t it time that we started listening to what God says and stop dragging our feet about getting it done!

This week, pick one of God’s commands about discipleship and just do it.  I don’t mean go to Leviticus 19 and pick a bunch of stuff that you were not going to do anyway and say, Okay, I won’t do that.  No, find one of the do this or these things that Jesus told us to do.  Here’s three that come to mind.

1.  Be the light of the world—let people see God’s light shining through you.
2.  Be the salt of the earth—let people taste God’s goodness when they meet you.
3.  Love one another.

We all can do each of these, but sometimes we think that we will when we get around to it.  Let’s take Joseph’s example and follow God’s direction and do what he told us to do with some urgency and willingness, knowing that God’s plans for us are good, and pleasing, and perfect.  God knows what he is doing so when he tells us or leads us or nudges us, we need to willing obey and have some urgency about it.

Let’s not be afraid to live in right standing with God and ready to do what he calls us to do.

And by the way, I got those Christmas lights up for Libby and Logan.

And by the way, I do learn more about my computer software each week, mostly how to get out of something that I got into because my fingers hit the wrong keys.

And by the way, If God put it in my head to write about, I will write a book or an article or just blog post, but it will go from concept to written word.  Count on it.

And by the way, Joseph didn’t forget the rest of what he was told to do.  He named the child Jesus!