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Our Loving Father

Merry Christmas! Can you believe this is our last Sunday together before Christmas? Christmas is Thursday!

We all know things go wonky in family life. Words get said, feelings get hurt, we say things, we don’t say things. Someone gets blamed, maybe even someone gets cast off… it happens. Not just in your family, in all families.

Relationships are fragile and so we have to do what we can to mend and care for those who are closest to us.

That’s even what happened in the relationship between God and humanity, between a Father and His kids. So what did God do? He started reaching out, he began building a bridge back to us. God did what he could, out of love, to repair the relationship – to reconcile.

Do you know what reconcile means? It means to restore, to repair, to coexist in harmony. Christmas is the gift of reconciliation.

Christmas was literally God packing light, getting into the car and driving to our house. In the Message Bible in John 1:14, the gospel says

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Christina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems and in 1885 she wrote a hymn “Love Came Down AT Christmas.”

She wrote,

Love came down at Christmas,  Love all lovely, Love Divine,

Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead, Love Incarnate, Love Divine,

Worship we our Jesus, But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token, Love shall be yours and love be mine,

Love to God and all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.

And I know at Christmas time it’s very easy to slip into saying things like, “What are we going to do for the kids this year? What are we going to do for your Mother?” But the whole reason we have a Christmas to celebrate… is because God asked that question first. “What am I going to do for the kids this year?” God started Christmas. He initiated it.

1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.”

And of course he acted first. He’s the parent. He leads by example. This is his show, this is his world, it was broken and he acted to fix it. And you know it’s funny, there are hundreds of names for God, people search the texts to find and discover God’s true name and yet when Jesus walked among us, his favorite name for God… was “Father.”

Listen, there would be no reconciliation… if God were not our Father.

There would be no reconciliation… if God were not our loving Father.

 

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God has a plan for your life

Christmas songs are great, but there’s only so many and I think by the 7th or 8th time you hear Frosty the Snow man, you start wishing that someone would push him into a hot tub. I also have to assume that these next four weeks are incredibly difficult for anyone whose grandma actually was run over by a reindeer.

You know speaking of which I don’t like the song Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer either, it’s a terrible song. I mean think about it, it’s all about everyone treating you like garbage until they realize you have something they need.

This year our Christmas theme is “The Gifts of Christmas.” And I think at Christmas time we typically think of the three gifts that the Wiseman brought the baby Jesus, gifts of great significance; gold, frankincense and myrrh. But in truth, those were all tangible items of wealth, and I often wonder if those first Christmas gifts were also the first Christmas returns. I’m sure Mary and Joseph were better off with the gold than with myrrh as a baby shower gift.

But this Christmas I want to remind you about the gifts that we bring to the Lord.

And I think there isn’t any better example in the scriptures than that of Mary. The Christmas story begins…

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

You know, when we’re talking about the gifts that we can give to God this Christmas, what more beautiful gift can we give then our lives?

Within Mary’s decision to be fully submissive to the call of God was her willingness, if need be, to suffer ridicule and contempt and loneliness. And God certainly didn’t force this choice on Mary; she willingly embraced what God had for her, didn’t she?

God had a plan for Mary’s life and God has a plan for your life as well. And the greatest thing we can do with our lives, is to give them back to God.

Look at what the Apostle Peter says….

1 Peter 4:10-11

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.

What is Peter saying? Well, each of us has been given gifts and abilities by God. God might not be asking to you to carry the Christ child for nine months, but God has placed a purpose inside of you. Peter says, “for example if you’ve noticed you’re good at speaking or teaching, then you should use that gift.”

Peter says, “Maybe you’ve notice you have a talent to serve other people – well then use that gift.”

And I know as a culture, we tend to put Mary up on a pedestal, we paint her picture, carve her statues, write songs about her and her character is in every Christmas play, but remember the angel says “this is a favor.” It was charity, she didn’t earn it, she didn’t win a contest – God singled her out as an act of grace. And Peter says that you and I are no different.

The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Why did God create us according to Paul? For good works. It’s not what saves us, it’s not what forgives us, works don’t make God happy, rather they are our purpose. And with Mary we see that God prepared the task for her… and then…. he prepares her for the task.

And once Mary could see that, all that was left for her to say was, “my life is yours – when do we start?”

Because I think it’s one thing to say “give God your life” but where do you start? Do I run off and join a convent, become a missionary, sell all my worldly possessions and shave my head? What does God want me to do? Where does God want me to go?

Well, where does Mary start? The story says next that…

Luke 1:39-40

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Ladies you just find out you’re going to have a baby, so what’s the first thing you do? You set out on a 4 day journey to walk 80-100 miles to your cousins house.  And I know we’ve all speculated as to ‘why’ Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, and it’s been offered that she was going to assist Elizabeth by being a mid-wife or perhaps Mary was hiding away from prying eyes, or perhaps… the angel….. gave her the idea.

In v36 the Angel tells Mary

36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.

The angel clearly tells Mary, ‘hey if you want to see God’s work in action, your cousin who has never been able to have a baby, ….she’s going to have a baby!” God gives Mary a life assignment, and where does Mary start? She starts where she lives, with the tools God has given her. She starts to serve …in her own family, doesn’t she?

Mary’s going to give birth to the Messiah! So where does she begin? Maybe she should take a class, or a Bible study, or maybe she should read up about saving the world? No, Mary starts in her own home town, with her own people, with her own family, using the grit and gumption that God had already given her.

She started with the familiar. She started with what was comfortable.

And I think the issue for us is – we look at our own lives and we take stock and then we wonder, ‘well, how can God use me?’

That’s what Mary asked. ‘I’m a virgin… how can God use me?’

Listen, you don’t know what abilities you’ve got that God can use. And since you and I don’t know what abilities God can use for His purposes… we should use all of our abilities for God whenever we can… and you know what? We might be surprised with what God can do with us… once we give in …and give God… our lives.

I think Christmas can be a time when we think about the impact we have, the thing we are devoting our life to and as we watch another year come and go as we question whether we have made a difference on this spinning ball of rock.

A few of us may scramble quickly to give to a charity, or to write an extra large check to the church, a few of us may even head down to the local soup kitchen and help a few helpless faces. But I want to offer that God can use more than just the arm you use to ladle soup or write checks with.

God can use your entire life, and not just any life – but your life – specifically the things that make you who you are.  Perhaps you’re good at gardening, or pet care, or you’re exceptionally good at reading out loud – God can use all of those things.

Maybe you’re a problem solver, a relationship restorer, or perhaps you’re an expert at finding leaks – God can use that to. Your entire life God has trained you, he’s molded you and faceted you to prepare you for this moment… don’t miss it.

At Christmas time I think we’re always so ready to retell the wonderful story of what God has given us. But this year we can revisit the things that we can give God.

You can give God your life.

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Giving God Your Praise

We give God our praise

And you know, I think like most people, I see the word ‘praise’ or ‘worship’ and I immediately think of singing. But when we read the word ‘worship’ in the scriptures is it always talking about singing?

Revelation 4:10

“The twenty-four elders fall down before Him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.”

The Greek word for ‘worship’ here means either to kiss the hand of royalty or to fall prostrate. It has nothing to do with singing, and more to do with the condition of your heart.

Hebrews 12:28

“Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

Here, worship is the Greek word ‘aidos” and aidos is like this weird mash-up of ‘shame and modesty.’

All through the law there were rules and conditions about how to bring animals for sacrifice, but today in church, we don’t bring those kinds of gifts anymore. Instead we bring our praise…..through singing, praying, taking communion, listening to a sermon and fellowship.

It’s all praise.

Now, in my family, I would default to my Dad or my wife as the better singer, but I was still raised in church all my life so I still know all of those hymns and choruses. But the problem for me now is… I can sing “Old Rugged Cross” without looking at the words. I can sing “Old Rugged Cross” without thinking about the words. I can sing “Old Rugged Cross” without giving any thought to the meaning that George Bennard conveys in his beautiful lyrics.

So sure, I’m singing a classic hymn, and it might make me think of my childhood growing up in my Grandmother’s Presbyterian church, but am I worshiping God with my heart and life? I think sometimes modern worship songs get criticized for being repetitive, but do you know why modern worship took that route? Because people began to realize that… we’re all slow learners. And sometimes we need to sing a verse more than once to really let it sink in. And sometimes it’s not til the end of the song that we really have given a thought to the words that we’re singing.

Remember what Paul said about giving God your life? He said,

Romans 12:1

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual…. (what?)  worship.

Tell me something… what is a living sacrifice? Because I would offer than being a living sacrifice is the key to giving God your heart, your life and your praise. Paul says in verse two.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
So worship is when we “change” how we think. When our minds become transformed and renewed. Becoming a “living sacrifice” means that

We change from thinking about ourselves and what WE WANT out of life… to thinking about what God’s will is… and what HE WANTS.

In other words we “sacrifice” our will and find a way to know His will.

So let me ask you this morning, what are you still holding on to? What are you treasuring more than your relationship with Jesus Christ?

Maybe it’s finances, maybe it’s sports, maybe it’s your job, maybe it’s even your family. Maybe it’s something deeper or something darker. We all have our addictions don’t we? Those things we’re too afraid to let go of, those little pieces of selfishness that we hoard just for ourselves.

Listen to me, there can be no part of your life that you love more than Jesus. Otherwise your gifts and your offerings are as useless as $2 tie. God doesn’t want your check and your cash anyway. He wants you – all of you.

That’s what it means to give God your heart. It means to give Him and to trust him with everything.

How do I do that? You choose to do it.

Listen, when you put God first it’s a sign that you understand what really matters and what really has value in this world.

That’s what it means to give God your heart. When you can look at the value of living for yourself, or living for the world and be able to set it aside and say, “I have another life waiting for me, and THAT’S the life that I am going to live for.”

I hate to say this, but as much as we try to make Christmas about Jesus, it’s all too easy to loose that perspective, isn’t it? It’s hard to fight the desire for nerf guns and Barbie dolls and new game systems and to honor God with our giving.

We human beings – we lose the eternal perspective way too easily don’t we? My son is way to young to figure this out, and it’s a struggle for him. Right now he is at the age where he thinks the whole world is coming to him – that if he doesn’t have something – or own something that’s a cause for him to be disappointed.

But we grown ups… we haven’t exactly mastered this either have we? Our perspective isn’t always Christ focused either is it? Especially in the one place where it should be… church.

You listen to any complaint in church and it will always be “Me” focused and not “God” focused. “It’s too cold, it’s too hot, the music is too loud, the music is too new, the kids are too loud…my chair got moved, someone’s sitting in my chair. I didn’t’ get a bulletin, I didn’t get a donut.”

Whose house is this anyway? Who is our praise for? What should our focus be?

We give God our hearts out of our own desire to do so, it’s our choice – do you know why? Because God will never take our hearts by force. The Bible says in Romans 14:11 “One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” One day there will be no choice for anyone. One day it will be obvious what you lived your life for and what you gave your heart to, but until that day…. until that day God allows you to give your hearts of your own free will. He does not take it from us.

Nobody Christmas morning is going to force you to give them a gift. I don’t want a gift from you if you feel forced to give it to me. Giving is from the heart, so it should be a free-will offering.

And it’s only natural to think about giving gifts at Christmastime, because it all started because God first gave to us. My favorite Christmas verse is still John 3:16

John 3:16

“For God so loved the world, that he (what?) gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The world needed saving and so what did God do? Well, God was 100% sold out for us wasn’t he? And so he gave us his son. Not because he had to, he wasn’t obligated to do it, he could have done it another way, but he did it freely. He did it because he wanted to, He did it because He loved us. And the Bible says in….

1 John 4:19 We love because he first loved us.

God doesn’t ask us to give anymore than he has already given. And if we ever get lost or need an example to follow – about how to give our heart, our life or our praise, we need only look to Jesus – because he has already shown us the way.

 

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Giving God Your Life

We give God our life

I know we always bring Mary out at Christmas time, but she is so much more than just the woman who gave birth to Jesus.

In Acts 1:12-14 when we first see the early church after Jesus ascends to Heaven we read:

When they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

What do we see here? We see Mary! Mary is one of these first people who knew Jesus and walked with Jesus and then she had to make that transition from being his Mom to being a disciple.  Yes, she raises him, feeds him and watches him tenderly as he becomes a man, but then she still becomes one of his biggest champions, she becomes a believer and one of his followers. And you might think, “well, how can a Mother do that? Make that journey from being a Mom to a fan,” but I think it’s because of Mary’s journey, you know?

Yes, she was there when he was born in the manger, but she was also there at the cross when he died.  She didn’t play the Mother card and step out saying, “I can’t watch my own son die” Mary did! She was there! She was there for the beginning of Christ’s life and she was there for the end! Which means she was there for all of the middle stuff to! Who better to believe in the Messiah than someone who was there for each moment of his life? The Christmas story begins in….

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

And so as Mary listens to the angel, she must have wrestled with the dilemma that was being placed before her.

How would her family and neighbors respond, how would her husband respond? Mary had a year of ridicule, gossip and suspicion to look forward to.

But in our Bibles, it seems Mary doesn’t even bat an eye and she responds with, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Did she have a choice? I think so. She could have dismissed it as being too complicated, too challenging, or she could have shown concerns with how it would have impacted  her life, but she doesn’t. She simply responds as one who has given their life to God.

The apostle Paul places a similar call on our lives…

Romans 12:1

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Paul starts with “by the mercies of God” Paul reminds us that God honors us first. He blesses us, he bestows mercy and grace and forgiveness to us… first. The angel says to Mary, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” God’s blessing comes first.

And then Paul says, “Brothers” he calls his readers by a close and personal greeting. So he’s talking to us – Christians – people who walk with God. He’s not making an appeal to strangers or outsiders.

And then Paul turns the corner, and he says “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” What does that mean? Well, what’s a sacrifice? A sacrifice is the difference between eggs and bacon on you breakfast plate, right? The chicken gave the eggs, but they were the least part of him, but the pig gave….. everything. He gave it all. For him there’s no going back, but Paul says “be a living sacrifice.” So that implies a daily commitment, a daily release, an ongoing lifestyle of giving my life…. to God.

Mary was able to be submissive to this request and she was able to face the future knowing this truth that Paul is talking about -  God picked her, and God strengthens her.

So in turn… she gives God her life.

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Giving God your Heart

In Psalm 51, we read

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are … (what?) a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

So, what is the real sacrifice? The Bible says it’s a broken and contrite heart. What’s a contrite heart? That phrase is about as foreign to me as “frankincense and myrrh.”

Broken – is the Hebrew word (shabar) and it means “tender.”

Contrite – is the Hebrew word (dakah) and it means “submitted.”

God says, “I don’t want your animals, they’re already mine anyway. I want you. I want your heart. I want you to be broken, softened, tender… and submitted.”

The sacrifice (in other words, “the gift“) is only pleasing to God when we are given with it. What does God want for Christmas? The same thing he wants from us every day, he wants our heart, our life and our praise.

Giving God your heart.

I am reminded of another gift that Jesus received,  years later when Jesus was grown and in his own ministry, the Bible tells the story of Jesus and another Mary…

Mark 14:3-9

While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?  For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Now, the woman from this story is Mary the sister of Lazarus, and truly she is offering a very expensive gift. This is the kind of present you open and your eyes widen and you say, “Oh wow – you shouldn’t’ have.”

One of the disciples in this story prices the perfume at 300 denarii. How much is that? Well, Mark was really good with recording money and numbers, and a few chapters earlier when Jesus feeds the five thousand, he tells his disciples to feed the crowd, and the disciples comment that it would cost “200 denarii” to feed everyone. So if 200 denarii can feed 5,000 people… 300 denarii is enough for everyone to eat and have desert, right? Can you imagine picking up the tab at a restaurant for 5,000 people? Well, that’s how much this gift of Mary’s cost….

I think it’s safe to say that this is the most valuable thing that Mary owned. Some Bible scholars believe this one vial was for her wedding day. Something her parents had given her, something she had saved for her entire life; and now in this one act of giving, she has broken it open and poured it out on the head of Jesus.

What do you think, do you think Mary loved Jesus? Here she was willing to give her most valuable possession, she literally had to break the bottle to get the perfume out, which means it’s a one time shot, you commit to this and there’s no going back.

Isn’t that how it should be with us? Shouldn’t we be willing to give of ourselves beyond what is expected or required to God simply because we love Him? Shouldn’t we be able to say, “I am going to give extravagantly, even though I know nobody will understand – and even though I know that it’s not even required of me – I’m giving simply because I love God with all of my heart?”

Now, do you think Jesus wants perfume? Not anymore than bulls or goats. If God owns all of the animals, don’t you think he also owns all of the commodities as well? And nobody was expecting this either, Jesus was in Simon’s house and in walks Mary… from the reactions of the disciples all of this was a surprise. So nobody asked Mary to do this, it wasn’t required of her…. all of this was a gift.

The story reminds me of something that the Apostle Paul wrote in, in 2 Corinthians 9:7

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Where does giving start? In the heart. Mary walked into that room, conversation stopped and perfume filled the air. Sure, she was thankful that Jesus had brought her brother back to life, but even more so, Mary’s heart was broken and contrite wasn’t it? Her actions were tender and submitted.

Mary loved Jesus with all of her heart.

See and what the writer of the Psalms is saying in contrast is, sure God asks for a sacrifice, but if you just walk up, plunk an animal down on the fire, it’s the same as pulling a present out from under a tree and throwing to the person. And you say, “There ya go. You know, honestly, I can’t even remember what it is. I saw it at the Dollar Store and I remember I hadn’t bought you anything and since it’s Christmas and since I’m obligated to get you something, I just grabbed that at random… Hope you like it.”

What would your reaction be? “Oh wow, thank you!” Is that why you want? A gift on Christmas morning?

Because people are contractually obligated to get you something?

No way!

It’s the thought that counts, right?

It’s not the gift, it’s the heart of the giver.

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