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Monday, December 31, 2018

Disciplines of Discipleship

            Spiritual disciplines are practices followers of Jesus do regularly in order to condition their minds and spirits to receive and live in the grace God gives in Jesus Christ.  The classic disciplines include prayer, scripture reading, silence, solitude, fasting, worship, and others.  In 2019, at HillSong Church, we will begin the new year inviting our church family to take up the disciplines, with a twist.
            Fasting, prayer, scripture and the other classic disciplines are most definitely encouraged.  And within our execution of these time honored, well proven disciplines, we will focus on disciplines designed to raise our awareness of our own walk through life.  We are Jesus’ disciplines. Read that and let it sit with you.  You are one of Jesus’ 21st century disciples!  So, you and I and all who live out faith within the HillSong Church family will commit to disciplines intended to form us as we follow Jesus’ lead in every aspect of our lives.
            These disciplines of discipleship will be learned in our church-wide emphasis on “Walking in the Light” of Jesus.  “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we will have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).  America sorely needs cleansing from sin.  Our church’s witness to the salvation we have in Christ is emboldened as our fellowship is strengthened.  And our fellowship is strengthened as we join together in a shared effort.  So, in order to be more effective in drawing others to Jesus and in order to live with greater joy and richness in our faith, we join hands together and leap into 2019, walking in God’s light.
            The disciplines we will learn begin with disciplines of seeking and observing God at the work in the world.  That’s week one of the church-wide emphasis on walking in the light.  The wise men we meet in Matthew 2:1-12 found their way to Jesus because they were looking for Him.  We will develop daily practices that heighten our senses.  God is at work in the world around us all the time.  We’ll learn to live our lives looking for him and seeing him.
            In week 2, we will read Matthew 2:13-22 & 3:13-17 as we learn disciplines of obedience.  Note the ways Joseph, John the Baptist, and Jesus all live in radical obedience to God.  In small groups and the sermon, we’ll discover how taking up disciplines of obedience shape us as disciples.
            Week 3 of the CWE, January 20-26, will focus on disciplines of submission.  This is the next step after we’ve committed to obedience.  Submitted to God, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days and then faced temptation from Satan (Luke 4:1-13).  What disciplines lead us to submit ourselves completely to God’s rule in our lives?
            January 27-February 2 is the fourth week of the church-wide emphasis on discipleship.  We’ll learn disciplines of Justice and liberation, taking our cues from Jesus’ sermon (Luke 4:14-30), and the reaction of the congregation that heard him preach it.  Clearly, participating in disciplines of justice takes us beyond just practices in our individual lives.  Commitment to justice means we are, in the name of Jesus, committed to flourishing of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our community.
            In the fifth and final week, February 3-9, we will read Luke 5:1-11.  There Peter says to Jesus, after doubting what Jesus has instructed, “Yet if you say so, I will” (5:5).  There are places in our lives where we want to control our life narrative.  In learning the discipline of following Jesus, we’ll be guided by Peter’s surrender.  Just as he said it, so too will we learn to say it.  “Lord, if you say so, I will.”  Even if I don’t understand, I will follow.
            Spending 2019 committed to disciplines of seeking/observing, obedience, submission, justice/liberation, and following, we will see our church formed in the image of Christ.  Moreover, the Holy Spirit will bring hurting, lost people into our church family where they will find salvation in Jesus.  It is going to be an incredible year at HillSong. I can’t wait for it to begin.

Christmas Eve, 2018 (a sermon)

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December 24, 2018
Christmas Eve Candlelight Service

“An angel of the Lord stood before them.” The refers to the shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields outside of Bethlehem.  Luke writes, “they were terrified” (2:9). You would be too; so would I be trembling in awe if visited by a divine messenger.  Whenever angels appear in the Bible, humans are overwhelmed. It is the reason the most common first word angels speak is “Fear not.”  To Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist, the angel had to tell him, “Don’t be afraid.” Similarly, to Mary, “fear not;” and the same to these shepherds.  
Can we even hear the words of the message or are we simply too shaken from the encounter with something otherworldly?  Hopefully, we can hear.  “Angel” literally means messenger.  When an angel comes, what he has to share comes straight from God.  It’s a message we need.
That night in the fields near Bethlehem, the message was, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this night in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (2:11).   All people.  The world is so big.  Life along the North Carolina coast moves at a different pace than here in the triangle; and our daily experiences are not the same as our fellow North Carolinians west of here, in the mountains.  And do some of our traditions differ from the folks in Cherokee, North Carolina? I think so. This vast diversity is just in our state. Think of the numerous cultural expressions in the the rest of the U.S., and the rest of the world!  The angel speaking to those trembling shepherds promised good news for all people - including the millions we never meet.
In the mid ‘80’s our family had only lived in Virginia a few years.  Every December we drove back to Detroit where we stayed at my Grandmother’s house.  My’ mom’s mother lived alone on 7 mile road. On Christmas Eve, we would go out to the suburb of Clawson, where my Dad’s very large family lived.   My mom’s mother would come with us. We stayed out late Christmas Eve every year, enjoying time with family.
One year, we returned to grandma’s Detroit home to discover there had been visitors: robbers.  They opened all the presents and stole anything they thought was valuable. We felt pretty violated, but quickly we gained perspective.  We weren’t hurt. The things they took were just that - things. We had each other. We had just enjoyed a night of great happiness with family.  How broken were their lives that they thought the best way to spend Christmas Eve was to break into someone’s home and steal from them.
I am bringing you good news of great joy.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
It’s a message for all people because all people need a savior.  
We’re here together enjoying familiar Christmas songs.  Not 2-3 miles from here are families struggling so badly they have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food.  Forget presents and a Christmas tree and decorations. They just need to survive. But they can’t forget presents and trees and decorations.  They live hand-to-mouth in this land of plenty; the wealth of others is in their faces as they struggle to make it through each day.
I am bringing you good news of great joy.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
It’s a message for all people because all people need a savior.
Maybe sadder than the desperately poor family is the wealthy one with $50,000 cars sitting in the driveway of their million-dollar home.  Yet, love and laughter is absent from that home. This wealthy family has experienced divorce, suicide, addiction ...
I am bringing you good news of great joy.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
It’s a message for all people because all people need a savior.
Tonight, Christmas Eve, soldiers from our country and other countries are on duty.  They carry rifles and look for enemies. They are far from home, far from the families they love.  Why, why on this night is this the story? Because war doesn’t take a holiday. Nation against nation, man against man, we humans kill each other.  
The angel promised this to all people, I am bringing you good news of great joy.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord, because all people need a savior.
Police are on duty tonight.  Why? As my story from 30 years ago attests, crime doesn’t take Christmas Eve off.  The world is broken and broken people either sit in their own hurt or do things to hurt others.  We need that angel’s word.
I am bringing you good news of great joy.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
It’s a message for all people because all people need a savior.

We have had a lot of joy in and around our church throughout the holidays.  There have been beautiful worship services, much laughter, meaningful moments, some surprises, and a full share of joy and good cheer.  Our joy comes from the beauty and power of the story we tell - the story of Jesus’ birth. Right in the middle of this story, from the mouth of the angel, we are reminded that we need a savior and promised that he has come, for everyone.  Even if you think you have it all together, you still have as much need for a savior as anyone else in the world.
This war-torn, crime-filled, drug-addicted, heartbroken, lonely world is the way it is because of sin.  Sin cuts us off from God. Sin is the overall category for choices we make that hurt ourselves and others; and sin is the decisions we make in life that offend God and take us off God’s path.  And every one of us sins every day. This is why Jesus had to come and be in the role he was in. To us is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.
This Christmas Eve, as I wish you happiness, I invite you to consider your own need for a Savior.  As you ponder that, consider that the Gospel of Luke presents Jesus as the Savior you need.
Throughout his gospel, Luke repeatedly shows his sense of the salvation Jesus brings.  Salvation is reversal of status. We were in tension with God, but with our faith in Jesus, we are in right relationship with God.  We were enslaved by sin, unable to break free. Jesus breaks the chains. He is the truth and when we know Him, we are free. Right now we live in a world of war, crime, addiction, broken relationships, and death.  He brings a new kingdom - the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace. When the Savior visits and we receive forgiveness, we then have new life. We become new creations and a part of a new community as we are adopted as sons and daughters of God.  
When can we hope to begin to see this salvation?  In Luke 4, Jesus, the baby grown up, says “today the scripture has been fulfilled.”  It will be finalized at His Second Coming and we long for that day when pain and death are finally and completely overthrown.  But even today as we live in the world with sin around us, upon giving our lives to Christ, we begin to lean into the eternal kingdom and live a kingdom ethic of love and grace right here, right now.  Salvation begins the day we visit the manger, and recognize that the baby there is our Savior and thus we worship Him as our Lord.
Who is this salvation for? Trust God’s messenger, the angel.  The promise made to the shepherds is good for each and every one of us.  “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”
Who is salvation for?  For you. Only you know all the details of your story, but whatever the good and the bad, your story needs a Savior - the Savior.  The same Jesus who will save the world from humanity’s attempts to destroy it loves you and wants to save you from the pain and heartache you have to carry.  If you’d like to learn more about how this Savior, born Christmas night, can be your Savior who completely changes the direction of your life, I’d love to hear your story.  Maybe together, we can talk and pray and ask the Lord to come into your life and change your life’s direction. Please see me after the service, or connect with me in the next couple of weeks.

I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas.  We will close our service by singing together “Silent Night.”


Monday, December 17, 2018

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018 - Luke 3:7-18

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            Waiting ... for Christmas break; students get time away from class and some have jobs that allow time off from December 25th to New Year’s Day; .  
            Waiting ... for Christmas morning, gathering round the lighted tree as presents are excitedly opened and a special meal is shared with the family.
            Waiting ... for the stroke of midnight when we get to shout “Happy New Year.”  
So much of this season is built around waiting.
 This is unlike any other time of the year.  We stretch out our celebration of Christmas.  Some grumble that decorations go up too early, or complain that the holiday has become too commercialized.  In truth though, a lot of people feel a unique kind of specialness.  We hope that during the holiday season, people will act a little bit nicer.  People in financial distress call churches and charities hoping the generosity will be greater because it’s Christmas.
But, to me it feels weird to say we are awaiting the arrival of Jesus because he came already - 2000 years ago.  Thus our Advent scripture readings are infused with double meaning.  Our ancestors in faith awaited the Messiah; we await the Second Coming of the Messiah.  
As we do, we listen to the sermon of John the Baptist preached on the bank of the Jordan River in 30 AD.  What does the arrival of Jesus - his first coming - mean for us now  - in the living of our lives today?  Why is it important that Jesus was born?
“The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.  He went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:2b-3).  John preached to everyone who came - the wealthy, the poor, the sophisticated urbanites and rough-around-the-edges shepherds and fishermen; his word was for Jews and gentiles.  To all he said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” 
The Bearing of fruit metaphor was used both by John the Baptist and by Jesus as a way of describing what is produced in the life of a believer.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Beware of false prophets.  ... You will know them by their fruits. ... Every good tree bears good fruit and every bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18).  Jesus later says, “God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” (John 15:1).
Fruit is a sign of growth.  When we lead others, those outside the faith, to meet Jesus, we are bearing fruit.  When we help new believers grow in their understanding of God, we bear fruit.  When we guide believers into new opportunities for mission and good works, bear fruit. When we meet people in great need and help them out of our own abundance, we bear fruit.  When, through study and prayer, we deepen our relationship with God, we bear fruit.  When we encourage people who are hurting, and when we walk with them through their trials, we bear fruit and grow as disciples.
Jesus’ very drastic statement is that when we do not bear fruit, our connection with him is severed.  God removes every branch that bears no fruit.  There’s no such thing as casual faith.  We grow as disciples or our faith is dead.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John preached.  Repentance, of course, is making that full turn away from the temptations and cultural trappings of the world around us and turning fully to God.  Repentance is the most radical change one can experience.   “Every tree that does not bear good fruit,” John preaches, “is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).
Anyone who takes the word of God seriously would, at this point in the story, come to two conclusions.  First, being thrown into the fire is judgment.  It is the state of being cut-off from God.  Failure to bear fruit, failure to live an active faith, is equal to calling judgment down on ourselves, and we do not want that.  We do not want to face life without God, much less face eternity after death without God.  The second conclusion is, we have to ask how do we avoid this judgment?  That’s what the crowds hearing John wanted to know. 
In 3:4, Luke describes who John is and what John is doing, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  John is the one preparing the way and Jesus is the Lord.  Because Jesus has come, everything has changed.  That’s why John issues the call for repentance, and that call involves changing is what our lives are about.  
What must we do?  The crowds asked that question and John offered a ready, practical response.  “Whoever has two coats, share with any who has none.  Whoever has food, share with anyone who is hungry” (3:11).   Judgment does not have to come for us.  It’s coming, and will be harsher than we can imagine and will be final.  God’s judgment is to be feared because God is holy and will not tolerate sin and every one of sins.  But, John offers a lifeline.  Share with each other so that no one is freezing or starving or crippled by poverty.
“What should we do?”  Tax collectors asked.  They collected taxes imposed by the Roman empire.  Roman soldiers would force peasants to pay whatever the tax collectors demanded.  Most tax collectors demanded higher amounts than Rome required, and got rich pocketing the difference.  They were thieves. 
What should we do?  John doesn’t tell them to quit the tax collecting business.  He says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed.” In other words, work ethically.  What does that look like in your job?  Where you work, away from the church, in the world - that’s where your discipleship is on display.  It doesn’t mean you’re always talking about Jesus.  Sometimes we do.  At other times, you do your secular work to the very best of your ability and you do it honestly.  When we live in integrity, we bear fruit.  When we treat people around us with kindness, we bear fruit worthy of repentance.
“What should we do?”  Soldiers asked John.  The soldiers were charged with maintaining order.  They possessed unchecked power.  They could bully the people and take what they wanted, and they did.  What should we do asked these soldiers who felt convicted by John’s words.  
“Do not extort money by threats,” he answered.  “Be satisfied by your wages.”  He didn’t tell them to quit the military.  John did not impose pacifism as a rule for God-worshipers.  In fact, his answer implies they would go right on being soldiers, work that is by nature violent. But, if we take the bullying, the threats, and the intimidation of common folk out of their work, then soldiers are responsible protectors who can be respected and even admired.  When we use whatever power we possess for good, to help people, to contribute to people’s flourishing, we bear fruit.  Sharing, acting ethically and honestly, and protecting and helping are all ways we can, in our lives, bear fruit worthy of repentance.  We choose to live this way because Jesus has come. 
His coming, His Advent, is a sign that God’s judgment is coming.  We take that seriously and know that on Judgment Day, if we have to stand on our own merit, we’ll be found lacking.  So, we repent.  We live to worship God and help others.  We acknowledge God as Lord throughout our lives, not allowing any aspect of life to be secular, apart from God’s rule.  And then, we trust God.
John knew that Jesus, and not he, was the Savior and Lord.  “I am not worthy to untie his sandals” he says (3:16).  He baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  He will judge, collecting the good fruit and bringing it into God’s house, and casting the bad out to be burned, cut off from God.  We can’t control that harvest.  We can’t determine if we will be saved or judged.  God judges and we are at God’s mercy.
So John, offers something we can all do in our lives, right now as we wait.  Because Jesus has come, we can share, be honest, be ethical, be kind, and be compassionate.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can live as people of the Kingdom of God even while we live in the world, fallen as it is.  And John promises the help of the Holy Spirit because Jesus baptizes us in the Spirit and Jesus has come.
As we wait for His second coming, we live in the reality of His first coming.  Our lives are different than the lives of non-believers because the Spirit is in us.  The world needs us to be different just as the world needed things to be different when Jesus was born.  
So, find someone with whom you can share.  Find a hurting person in need of encouragement, or a lonely friend in need of compassion.  When your peers cut corners on the job, express your repentance by working ethically.  And the when the opportunity is there, tell someone about why Jesus is your Lord.  Invite someone to come to worship with you.  This is the Advent fruit we have to share.  And people are hungry for it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advent 2 - Luke 1:68-79

“Song of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:68-79)
Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

            We’re well into the season now!  Lights, music, TV commercials, cards in the mail; decorations around the city and around the neighborhood; shopping lists; eggnog; Christmas is upon us.  I love it, as many of us do.  But as much as we love Christmas, we treasure the story of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ even more. 
The story of Jesus’ birth is a Holy Spirit story.  We can read Luke and clearly see that in the story of Jesus’ birth, the Holy Spirit is at work.  And, when the Holy Spirit is at work and we respond in faith, then the Spirit lead us into God’s peace.
The Spirit is mentioned over and over.  The angel who appeared to Mary promised the Holy Spirit would come upon her (1:35).  When Mary’s cousin Elizabeth came to visit, the Holy Spirit filled her (v.41).  Later in Luke we see the Holy Spirit fill Jesus and lead him into the wilderness to face Satan (4:1).
This morning we zero in on Luke 1:67.  Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.  Earlier Luke described Zechariah as an aged priest descended from Abijah and his wife Elizabeth, also elderly and also a descendent of a priestly line, the line of Aaron.  The couple was childless and past childbearing years.  In this particular year, Zechariah was the one priest chosen to enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement to make the offering on behalf of the nation.  Alone in that sacred space, an angel came to him.  He wasn’t prepared for that!
Members of the clergy are as shocked and awed by direct encounters with divine beings as lay people are.  He wasn’t ready to meet an angel, but that’s what happened.  “Fear overwhelmed him” (1:12) as the angel told him that his barren wife Elizabeth would have a son who would be named John and be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15). Zechariah couldn’t believe it, and said so.  The angel was not impressed by his skepticism, and so, he rendered old Zechariah mute until the miracle baby came. 
All who knew Elizabeth and Zechariah rejoiced with them at their son’s birth even as they marveled at the old priest’s inability to speak.  Their friends and family knew this child was from God.  Still, when Elizabeth gave the baby the name “John,” the neighbors and relatives called time out.  You can’t name him that.  John’s not a family name.  They all looked to silent Zechariah who grabbed a tablet and scrawled out “J-O-H-N.”  He held it up for all to see.  With the baby here, his voice was released.  Aloud he said, “His name is John.”
Then, the priest, the father of the miracle baby, Zechariah, silent the previous 9 months, sang this song.  It was a psalm in the form of Old Testament psalms.   The message was the stuff of prophets of old, word that had not been heard since Malachi, hundreds of years earlier. A psalm?  Yes.  A prophecy?  Most definitely, in the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the great prophets.  Yet this song of Zechariah was also a song of the Holy Spirit.
Through the priest’s mouth the Spirit tells what God has done and is about to do.  Next, Luke will tell of the birth of Jesus.  John and Jesus, cousins; one born of a woman after she’s gone through menopause; the other born of a virgin; both inspiring great songs of faith: John, Zechariah’s benediction and Jesus, Mary’s magnificat.  John preceded Jesus.  After Jesus was baptized by John, his public ministry began, and John encouraged his own followers to leave him and follow Jesus.  Many did including some of the 12 disciples.
This story, flowing through Zechariah’s song, declares that God has acted. “Blessed be the Lord ... he has looked favorably upon his people” (1:68).  How?  “He has raised up a mighty savior” (v.69).  God’s people will be saved from powerful enemies who hate them.  God has shown mercy.  God has remembered his covenant with Abraham.  
Zechariah sings, because of what God has done, “we [may] serve him without fear.” Think Adam before the fall when he and Eve enjoyed complete freedom in their relationship with God in the garden, even freedom from sin.  When we put our trust in this savior foretold by Zechariah, we are rescued from the chains our own sins impress upon us. 
After praising God for Jesus, Spirit-inspired Zechariah then sings to his newborn son.  “You, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”  In Jesus God has acted so that the very thing that separates us from God - God’s holiness verse our sinfulness - is removed.  He takes our sins on himself, and puts his righteousness on us.  When we put our trust in Jesus, we are made right where previously we were flawed.  Sin is that serious.  In sin, we are destined for death.  And we are all sinners.  But John the Baptist would come and show us that in Jesus, God forgives.
Zechariah sang of being rescued from enemies.  The three greatest foes of all people in all times and place  - the three greatest enemies you and I face - are antagonists who cannot be defeated: sin, Satan, and death.  In Christ, we are safe even from these three evils.
Zechariah closes singing, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet onto the way of peace.”  Ah yes, the way peace, where the Spirit leads those who trust in God.  In God’s light, we see the world as it is and ourselves as we truly are, sinners.  Without God, we are lost.  The journey to salvation is a free gift, one full of joy.  That’s doesn’t mean it is easy.
Pastor and blogger Alan Brehm likens what we go through when we step onto God’s path following the Spirit to the process of refining glass.  Touring a glass-blowing factory, he watched as the glass was heated up to remove impurities and make it moldable.  The furnace was so hot, even at his safe distance, he felt uncomfortable.  The goal was to make the glass a thing of beauty.  The process required intense heat that would change the glass from impure to pure, from rigid to pliable.
When we turn to Christ and put our trust in Christ, we are that glass, heated up, refined, bent, shaped, molded, and made into something new.  God goes to work on us.  The Holy Spirit takes up residence in us just as Jesus takes our impurities, our sins, and re-creates us as right and acceptable before God.  John’s job, as Zechariah stated, was to go before Jesus, paving the way.  Further on in the story, we see John baptizing people beside the Jordan River (3:3). 
God accomplished His work in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of the son.  God continues the work of salvation today. The Holy Spirit appeals the hearts of women and men, drawing them to God’s light.  
Of course, when we keep our gaze fixed on the world around us, we cannot see God’s light or know God’s peace.  When we make life choices based on the values of our current culture instead of the transcendent values of Heaven, we cannot see God’s light or know God’s peace.  When we hold on to old grudges, refuse to give grace, and instead view our fellow human beings with malice in our hearts, we cannot see God’s light and know God’s peace.  We have to see the world, but see it in God’s light.
Jesus has come.  The light is shining.  God’s spirit is here.  We can accept God’s gift or not.  We are called to repent, to turn from the darkness in the world to God’s light.  This was preached by John the Baptist and taught by Jesus.  Turn away from darkness, turn to the light.  Turn away from sin, turn to God.  Turn away from false, impotent saviors, to turn to the one true Lord, the crucified, resurrected Jesus.  We may choose faith in Christ.  The Holy Spirit helps us.  But even with the Spirit’s help, God allows us free will.  We can turn away from God.  God will not force us to have faith. 
To walk God’s way, the way of peace, we have to be honest about our self-indulgence, our need to control others, and the aggressions and prejudices that live within us.  We have to present ourselves, the very worst of ourselves fully to God.  We have to go through the Spirit’s refining fire.  We not only hear and tell the story.  We enter it.
We enter the fire and come out new.  We approach as sinners and emerge as people born again, as new creations.  When we hear the song of the Holy Spirit, ... and believe it, ... and decide to live it, ... then we begin to understand what new life really means.  We start to grasp the peace the Bible promises.
Christmas is great.  The peace of God is a whole lot better. When we hear the Spirit’s son and allow ourselves to be led into faith, peace is what we get.


Works Cited

Brehm, Alan. “The Waking Dreamer.” Refining, 1 Jan. 1970,

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Belief in Quarks, Belief in Christ

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2 Corinthians 4:16-18
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

            Quarks.  They are subatomic particles, so small, they have never been seen. Theoretical predictions based on their existence have been confirmed experimentally.  The late John Polkinghorne was a mathematician when quarks were discovered.  Mid-career, feeling the call of God, he switched careers, attending seminary to become an Anglican priest.  In his book Living with Hope, a collection of Advent devotions, during the second week of Advent, he briefly describes the discovery of these theoretical realities, quarks.
            We cannot see them.  We only believe they exist.  Belief is the stuff of faith.  Science deals with measurable evidence.  Polkinghorne wonders whether real scientists should take quarks seriously.  Then, the scientist-pastor answers his own question writing, “We believe in quarks not because we have seen them sitting on their own but because that belief make sense of so much experience that we can observe directly”[i]  (italics mine).  He has faith in the methods of observation that leads scientists to accept un-seeable quarks as real things.
            Similarly, Polkinghorne anticipates the eternal blessing we have in our faith in Jesus.  Citing 2 Corinthians 4, we see that our outer nature is wasting away (our bodies are dying).  But, because of who we are in Christ, saved by grace, our inner nature is being renewed and destined for life beyond the death of the body.  Paul says something seemingly incongruous.  “We look at … what cannot be seen.”
Like the unobservable quarks, we can’t see the eternal life we are promised when we give ourselves to Christ.  What we can do is hear the story – Jesus rose from the grave.  We can assess the history.  Bodily resurrection is the best explanation for why first century Jews like Peter and Paul believed in Jesus as Messiah and Savior.  If he was truly resurrected, then should God be trusted?  Yes.  Polkinghorne writes that though Paul did not see the glory he was describing, both he and Peter “had direct experience of the grace given them from God the Father, and the hope given them through the risen Christ, and sufficient knowledge of the Spirit at work in their hearts.”[ii]  
Can you believe a Star led astrologers from Persia to Bethlehem?  Or that a baby was born to a virgin?  Or that this baby was the Savior of the world who, when he grew up, would be crucified for your sins and after that rose from the grave?  Is any of this believable?  John Polkinghorne, a true scientist, considered the evidence and more importantly considered his own experience after seeking God.  This Christmas, seek God!  Consider the evidence yourself, and ask God to speak to your heart.  I pray that if you do, you’ll find the best conclusion to be reached is that God can be trusted and Jesus is who the Bible says he is.  Once you’ve discovered that, put your faith in Him. 

[i] J. Polkinghorne (2003), Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.27.
[ii] Ibid, p.27.

Monday, December 3, 2018

God's Way, the Way of Hope (Psalm 25)

Image result for psalm 25 Advent 1

First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

In Psalm 25, the singer appears to have had enough of life lived by his own wits.  “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust” (25:1-2a). He speaks of enemies and appears to fear the power of those enemies he is sure hate him.  In my own life, I am blessed to say I don’t have specific people I cite as enemies. I don’t view Muslims as my enemies. Most are not terrorists and the encounters I have had with Muslims in Ethiopia, in Egypt, and in here in triangle have been very positive.  No, Muslims are not my enemies.
Nor are unbelievers and unchurched people.  I have a lot of friends who don’t go to church at all and are unsure of what we do here.  Certainly their worldview is different than mine. But, they love their kids. They are friendly people.  I believe they need Jesus and are lost without him. But, I don’t count them as enemies.
Petty rivalries, family conflicts, disputes with neighbors; none of these amount to anyone I would describe as ‘enemy.’  Maybe you have specific people in mind when you hear that word. I don’t. But, I have had many moments when I have prayed that prayer uttered by the singer of Psalm 25.  “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” Pressure in life builds, stress mounts, and I feel I cannot meet all my responsibilities or handle all that life throws my way.  With Christmas, the most materialistic of holidays looming, shopping and parties and expectations add financial strain and demands on our time to the list. Yes, I bet many of us find ourselves with the need to lift our souls to the Lord.
The singer has something specific in mind.  Do you bark orders at God? You and I do, if we take the words of this song and sing them as our own.  Three times from verses 4-5, we sing it. “Make me know your ways, O Lord; lead me in your truth, and teach me.”  Ways.  Truth. Teach me.  Then, verses 8-10; we know the Lord is good and upright because He instructs sinners, directing them away from sin to God’s way.  “He leads in what is right and teaches the humble his way” (25:9). When we keep his decrees, we are on God’s path, and that path is unfailing love.  
This singer, originally David, perhaps, and then the community that canonized his words for worship - the singer is not bashful and is not playing around.  As if God needs reminding, the singer says, “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord” (v. 6). Remember me. Forget my sins. Remember your love. Remember me. That’s Biblical prayer.  He sets the course he wants God to take. He wants God to make sure he, the helpless sinner, is rescued and set in God’s way.
As we “do” the holidays, are we on God’s way, in-step with God?
Or, is the world out of step?  Have we along with the world around us, lost a deep sense of the way of God?  Over and over and over, this Psalm invites any who would sing it to sing it directly to God.  We can do that. The Bible makes it plain here and in many places. At any point in life and especially when life is falling apart, we can sing and pray and shout and cry to God, and we expect God to hear us and respond.  If this Psalm is our cue, then when we seek the Lord, what we’re asking is to be gently guided back onto the way of God. We pray this because the way of God seems to be the best way to live, the only way.
Signs that the world, and maybe us with it, are falling away from God instead of walking joyfully hand-in-hand with God are all around.  The lostness of the world is on display in every direction we look. I heard of a high school student passing out brownies that his classmates gratefully accepted and hungrily gobbled up, not knowing they were laced with marijuana.  Regardless of your views on the efficacy or evil of this drug, it’s deceptive to give it to people without their knowing.
A more drastic sign of how lost the world is:  The porn industry is one of the most profitable in our country and in the world, a multimillion dollar business that degrades the consumer and the producer.
Even more drastic, a sign of how evil spills over humanity, bringing and sorrow with it: the “caravan.”  A throng of desperately poor people are stuck in limbo along the border of the United States and Mexico. Families seeking the American dream and escape from dangerous, oppressive situations are met with closed doors and tear-gas.  Whatever your view of immigration is, this is evil.
And this: I recently read that 6,000-10,000 churches in the United States close their doors every year.  In a world run amuck, the church is to be the body of Christ bearing witness to the salvation people have in Jesus. Yet, more churches die than thrive.  Six thousand-10,000 American churches close their doors permanently, every year. ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; ... make known to me your ways.”
Perhaps worse than churches dying are Christians dying.  In Nigeria, it is common place for Christians near the North to be physically assaulted and rendered homeless or murdered by the Boko Haram Muslim terrorist group.  Even more deadly are the Fulani sheep herders who live all over the country, who are Muslims, and now, thanks to Boko Haram, are armed with assault rifles and willingly use them without warning against Christians.  Our Nigerian brothers and sisters in Christ will celebrate Christmas as we do. As they do so, they will pray Psalm 25 with an urgency we might not recognize. “Do not let our enemies exult over us,” they pray, singing the Psalmist’s words.
Churches die because Americans aren’t interested enough to attend.  Christians die because some deranged people in Nigeria decide to kill them.  Both are signs that the world is falling away from God.
Where’s the hope?  We might point to China, where Christianity is spreading like a wildfire.  Similar stories come out of Korea and India and South America. Rejoice! The world will never be without a witness testifying to the salvation God gives in Christ.  Rejoice!
But what about the weary Nigerian church?  What about the impassive, disinterested American church?  Or, the great cathedrals of Europe that stand empty, museums pointing to a now dead age. Is Christianity here destined to be a thing of the past?  We serve a living God, one more powerful than any sinful temptation, one able to turn back the seeming inevitability of history. If we didn’t believe in God’s great power, we wouldn’t waste our time in worship and prayer, would we? But we do believe.  Yes, the growth of the church in the global south is a cause for hope. Yes, though churches are dying America, there are still some American churches thriving. These stories are testaments of hope.
The greatest testament of hope is the reality of God himself.  That was all the singer had. Verse 15 - “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”  David held this trust when King Saul tried to run him through with the spear and later when his own son Absalom raised an army and went to war against him.  David’s hope always came back to his unwavering trust in the power and love of God.
David never got to see God come in human flesh, in Jesus of Nazareth.  We know God in Jesus - the ultimate expression of God’s love. Jesus is our model for walking in the way of God. Assessing the lostness of the world, we know our hope is in Christ.  Whether that hope is for revitalization in a ho-hum American church, or for life itself in a threatened Nigerian church; or, for hope in a desperate crisis you are facing in your own life; the hope is Christ who guides us back to the way of the Lord.
Just a few days before he would be arrested and crucified, Jesus was in Jerusalem in the temple district with his disciples.  Taking in the grandeur of the temple and the hypocrisy of the worship, his disciples wondered when God would act dramatically to turn history around, in their favor.  Jesus warned that the moment would come and would mean judgment because God punishes sin. God casts out those who reject His way.
But, as terrifying as God’s wrath might seem, hope comes with it because Jesus sets things right.  Our sins are nailed to his cross. He takes our death on himself. He takes his resurrection and shares it with us.  In the sermon he gives his disciples there in the temple’s outer court, he promises, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Luke 21:33).  That’s our hope: the promise of Jesus; the promise that he will guide us into the way of God and the way of God is the life we want to live.
As we prepare our hearts for the Lord’s supper, bring to mind the struggles in your life, or the signs of lostness in the world that threaten to diminish your hope.  Let this prompt you to cry out the words of the Psalm. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” And lift your soul to God. Bring your burdens to God. The Holy Spirit will help you, God will take your load, and Jesus will tenderly, lovingly open before you life lived God’s way, the way of hope.