Final Post of 2015

I am taking this week off to celebrate the New Year and my anniversary.

Thanks for reading in 2015. Thanks for your support of my ministry.

May God bless you this week and as we head into the new year. Have a safe and happy week.

I will be back to blogging next Tuesday January 5, 2016.

Christmas On Patmos

Dr. Robert Lowery wrote this several years ago. He was a mentor, teacher and friend who went home to be with the Lord about 4 years ago. I share this piece of his work as the final part to my sermon series on the Nativity Set. It is a longer article but I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas.

The Christmas story occupies approximately thirty-one verses in Matthew whereas Luke’s devotes seventy-four verses. Because of these verses people have constructed pageants and plays and have composed carols and cards. Poets and preachers along with artists and authors, ancient and modern, continue to stir our hearts.

Many of us have heard the stories of Matthew and Luke so often that perhaps we have become numb to their beauty. On the one hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from either the contempt of so-called biblical experts who deny the reliability of Scripture. And on the other hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from the sentimentality of people who either follow Jesus or barely know of him.

Year after year, decade after decade, and century after century, the same cast members have been assembled each December: sleepy shepherds and wandering sheep; a wandering star and exotic (three!) wise men; blaring trumpets and singing angels; an expectant mother and waiting husband. This year children of all ages will march across the stage and act out their parts. The same cast members are found in our carols and are beautifully portrayed on cards.

But one little word unites these images and individuals. It is often over-looked and omitted from the newer translations. And yet it appears six times each in Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions: Behold!

It serves as either a word of comfort or challenge, exhorting us to lift up our eyes and see the world from a different perspective or encouraging us in hard times.

Consider the following:
When Mary is told that she is to give birth to God’s Son, she responds: “Behold! the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38).*

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in order to share the good news. And we are told that Elizabeth’s baby leaped within her and she shared with Mary: “Behold! when you came in and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I heard your voice!” (Luke 1:44). And Mary responded by singing: “Behold! . . . now generation after generation will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)

When Joseph found out about Mary’s condition, he was ready to divorce her. But before he could do so “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid” but that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:20). And in that same dream he is told: “Behold! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)” (Matt. 1:23).

And on the night of that great birth, the angel of the Lord reassured the frightened shepherds: “Behold! I bring you good news of great joy for everyone!” (Luke 2:10)

Eight days later, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus journeyed to the temple and Luke catches our attention: “Behold! There was a man named Simeon who lived in Jerusalem. He was a righteous man and very devout. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he eagerly expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel” (Luke 2:25). And upon taking the baby in his arms he begins to praise God, thanking him for the Savior of the world and near the end he turns to Mary and says: “Behold! This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others” (Luke 2:34).

In Matthew 2:1 there is the dramatic appearance: “Behold!” some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about the newborn king. How did they know where to go? “Behold! the star appeared to them, guiding them to Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:9).

One more time, the word is used with the angel of the Lord, when we read: “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph” in still another dream, this time he was instructed to flee with Mary and the baby to Egypt because of the danger faced by the family. And the same angel appeared once again: “Behold!” this time with the command to return to Israel because Herod was now dead (Matt. 2:19).

Behold! It is one of the most important words in the Christmas story. In reading through the above verses do you catch the sense of challenge or comfort? The word beckons us to sit up and take notice, to cease looking down and around and instead cast our eyes to the heavens, to the God who reigns and the Lamb who redeems.

John the apostle does not refer to the Christmas story in the opening pages of his gospel. But it is in another book that John celebrates Christmas, albeit in a most peculiar setting, as a prisoner on the desolate island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9), just off the coast of Asia Minor, nearly a hundred years after the first Christmas. John’s nativity is described in a mere five verses.

Consider John’s unique telling of the Christmas story as recorded in Revelation 12:1-5:
Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance.
I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with moon beneath her feet,
and a crown of twelve starts on her head. She was pregnant, and
she cried out in the pain of labor as she awaited her delivery.
Suddenly, I witnessed in heaven another significant event. Behold!
I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven
crowns on his heads. His tail dragged down one-third of the stars,
which he threw to the earth. He stood before the woman as she
was about to give birth to her child, ready to devour the baby
as soon as it was born. She gave birth to a boy who was to
rule all nations with an iron rod. And the child was snatched
away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.

Contrary to many who believe that Revelation should be interpreted literally John himself calls this brief story a portent or sign, not a literal account. On the basis of the Old Testament symbols for the tribes of Israel (12:1-2), we can identify the woman as Israel, God’s people. The child who is to rule all the nations is obviously Christ. And the dragon, we know, is Satan (cf. 12:9), who was unable to destroy Christ during his earthly life.

In essence, what we have here is Christmas on Patmos, a Christmas with no shepherds or sheep, no carols or wise men. Not even Joseph is present. John’s nativity set, if it were to be sold in stores, would have only three pieces: a woman, a child, and a dragon. Not much money to be made off of it.

“Behold! . . . a red dragon . . . ” Leave it to John to confuse us once again! He does it so well throughout Revelation, at least according to many. He just can’t get the story right, can he? Ever the realistic prophet, the one who is always truthful but often tactless, John’s rendition offers conflict not carols, war not worship. It is a PG-13, if not R-rated, rendering of the story. Some scenes are too intense for young audiences, indeed for audiences of all ages.

There is no sentimental Christmas story here: no cozy fireplace, only a fire-breathing dragon; no cookie-eating Santa dressed in red, only a red dragon ready to devour the baby Jesus; no cuddly animals lowing, only a cunning dragon sweeping his tail across the heavens.

Can you imagine a dragon becoming a regular in a Christmas story performed by little children? Who would want the role? Can you picture a well known company printing Christmas cards with a red dragon lurking behind the manger scene? Of course not! Someone else already lays claim to the color red this time of year, we would be told. Let’s not confuse the public.

Of all the Christmas gifts I received as a child, there is one that disappointed me most: a set of encyclopedias. “What place do these books have being under a Christmas tree?!” I asked after I had stripped off the wrapping paper on a Christmas more than forty-five years ago. I wanted my Roy Rogers sixshooter and cowboy hat. At the age of eight, I believed that no book weighing more than two ounces was to be considered a gift.

But then one winter night, a year or two later, our family was listening to a family radio quiz show and we were challenged to crack open the volumes. We were told that the first family to answer the question correctly would win free tickets to some now-forgotten movie. The question? What was the first song ever recorded on a record to be played on the phonograph? We scurried through the pages and we found the answer.

The song? “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Now that is a Christmas carol?

Only once is Jesus referred to as a child by John. But twenty-eight times the child looks like a Lamb.

At our house we have a nativity set up year round. It is a beautiful set, carved out of wood from Israel. I have added a plastic piece which appears out of place. Right behind the manger, I have placed a red dragon. On Christmas day John of Patmos proclaims: “Behold! The Lamb went forth to slay the Dragon. Blessed be the name of the Lamb!”

[*The New Living Translation is used throughout. The word “Behold!” is in italics because it was omitted by the translators.]

My Hidden Joys of Christmas

Counting this year, I have now been a part of 22 Christmases as a Church leader. I have been a part of big productions to simple candlelight programs and everywhere in between. I get to see the good and bad of Christmas each year on full display. Through the years I have come to appreciate these hidden joys at Christmas.

1. Children Serving the Lord. I do not use the word “performing.” I view a Christmas program as an act of serving the Lord. I love seeing our young people sing and act and serve in numerous little ways. Thanks to all the young people who were involved yesterday.

2. Church Teamwork. Every special Church program takes a team of people helping to put everything together. This year we had musicians, song leaders, drama leaders, people helping with decorations and teachers. We had people helping in the lobby and in the kitchen. People donated food, money and time. It is great to see the Church work together to accomplish anything. Thanks to everyone who worked at making our program come together.

3. Lots of People. It was incredible to see the Church so full of people yesterday. I see unlimited potential to reach people with the message of the gospel in our area. Early in ministry I heard a Church leader say his goal was to have their Christmas attendance become their average attendance in 5 years. So far that has come true for me and so I get excited at big events like this because God is touching people’s lives and some for the first time who will eventually come to know Jesus as their savior.

4. Good Times. Early on in the planning for our Christmas program I asked my wife about the “12 Days of Christmas” skit the older kids were doing. Did it have any spiritual meaning? She said something like, “No, it’s just fun. And that’s okay.” She was right, sometimes we just need to smile and enjoy ourselves – even in Church.

5. Generosity. I love it that people are so giving this time of year. I saw a few pictures of the gifts being given to the Christian Children’s Home and it made me smile. I was also a part of distributing the Molten Fund with the pastors again this year. It was a fund set up years ago to help local people in the Christmas season. We were able to give away $16,000 to people with needs this year. I know these are just two of the thousands of acts of generosity that happen just here in Adrian. I always hope this spirit of kindness will last the whole year through.

I know that most of us enjoy a day or two off at Christmas. I know we enjoy getting gifts and being blessed. I know we enjoy family time together. But for me, I have come to enjoy these simple experiences every year.

What brings you joy at Christmas?

More Weekend Reading

You Don’t Need A Date Night 

Is Happiness Different from Joy – I have thought this for years but someone finally articulated it for me.

3 Reasons People Attend Your Church for the First Time 

What NOT to Say to a Pastor’s Wife

Why I Don’t Preach Politics (A Follow-Up with Q & R) – Follow up to an article I linked to last week.

I Will Not Leave Jesus, But I’m Done With the Church – Link t0 an audio clip from John Piper

My Favorite Line in the Christmas Story

Last week I preached on the lives of Joseph and Mary.  At our Christmas Candlelight program on December 23 I am speaking more specifically on Mary.  As a result of this teaching I have been reading the Biblical story over and over.  Without a doubt my favorite line in the Christmas story comes from the lips of Mary.

An angel appears to Mary and tells her she is going to have a baby.  When the angel appears she is troubled at his words.  She is then told that this boy will be named Jesus and he will be called the Son of God.

She inquires further about how this can happen since she is a virgin.  The angel tells her of the power of God on her and also on her elderly relative Elizabeth to give them both children.  Then the angel delivers this closing line.  “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37)

With these words still hanging in the air Mary says this one powerful line.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.                 Luke 1:38 (NIV)

Mary shows us in one line what it means to be a follower of God.  She displays a total surrender to God’s will.

What if, as you went into the New Year, God placed a burden on your heart to start a new ministry?  What if you felt compelled to get more involved in the Church?  What if God called you toward Bible College or full time ministry?  What if you envisioned the mission field in your future? What if?

What would you do?   What would I do?

One requirement to following God is a willingness to allow him to lead us.  Mary’s future was unknown because she was busy keeping her eyes focused on following God.  Then when he asked something of her, she was ready.

Will we be ready?

Something I Learned About Christmas

I have been continuing work on my sermons in the series “The Nativity Set.”  While reading and researching I ran across something I had never heard before.  The article was about problems in preaching the Christmas story and the second point was about there being no room in the inn.

I thought you might enjoy a little learning today.

First, the problem Joseph and Mary encountered during their stay in Bethlehem wasn’t a lack of room in the inn. While most English versions still translate the Greek term katalyma as “inn” (Luke 2:7), the only other two occurrences of the word in the New Testament refer to a guest room where Jesus and his disciples shared a Passover meal (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). Kenneth Bailey rightly asks, “If at the end of Luke’s Gospel the word katalyma means a guest room attached to a private home (22:11), why would it not have the same meaning near the beginning of his Gospel?”

Assuming Joseph was relying on the hospitality of a friend in Bethlehem whose guest room was already taken, what was the alternative? The placement of Jesus in a manger suggests he was born in a stable near the place of lodging, or even in a cave. But there’s another alternative. Since the guest room was full, Joseph and Mary likely stayed in the family room with everyone else. It wasn’t uncommon for animals to stay in the house, since they provided heat in winter and were protected from theft.

Perhaps this seems like much ado about nothing, since any scenario—cave, stable, or family room with animals—reflects the humble circumstances in which Jesus was born. Yet getting the details right can keep us from turning the storyline into something untrue—a story of rejection or a harsh innkeeper or an incompetent husband who didn’t account for a crowded inn. It is the “normalness” of the birth that is so striking. The irony is the King of kings had an ordinary birth in humble circumstances.

Stages of Mature Development

Through the years I have watched the development of my children with great curiosity.  With each new step in their growth I have seen changes in their actions that are interesting.  Many of their transitions parallel the spiritual growth people experience.

Stage One – Feed Me.  Those early years are hard because children need you to do everything for them.

Stage Two – Feed Yourself.  With age comes independence.  It begins by placing a prepared plate in front of a child and letting them use their fork and spoon.  Eventually it moves to greater responsibility.  My children are now old enough that I can tell them to cook themselves an egg if they are hungry.  They can make their own sandwich.  Sure, I am still helping out, but soon they will leave my house (hopefully) and they will assume 100% responsibility to feed themselves.

Stage Three – Feed Others.  I know that in the future they will each get married and start their own family.  They will assume responsibility for one another.  They will have guests into their home.  Then one day they will have little mouths to feed.

These developments physically seem very natural and we would actually be very concerned if they did not happen.  Yet, spiritually speaking, I see this development less and less.  In fact, I hear people all the time saying, “I just need to be fed.”  Usually this means I want to sit in worship and not get involved.  It means we want to attend a small group and not lead one.  It  means that I will let someone else assume responsibility for my development.

A huge part of both natural and spiritual development is the ever increasing ability to take care of myself and others.  Adult children sitting in a high chair while their mom “makes the airplane spoon circle the runway until it lands in the hanger” is a tragic and painful sight.  It is equally tragic that people who have been Christians for years have no clue how to read their Bible, discover what it means, apply it to their life and then teach it to someone else.

So let me ask you a couple questions:

Are you dependent on other people to teach you about a life of faith and developing a Biblical knowledge?

Are you teaching anyone else what you are learning?   Who is depending on you until they grow enough to feed themselves?

How God Grows Our Faith

I am told that several years ago Andy Stanley and the leaders of Northpoint Church did a series of surveys to find out the biggest factor for spiritual growth. After collecting the surveys they began to group the responses into categories. In the end they came up with five different things that God uses to grow our faith. I found these to be helpful and enlightening.

God uses:

1. Practical Teaching – We grow when we hear God’s word explained in a way that we understand and can apply it.

2. Providential Relationships – God will frequently bring people into our lives that influence us for growth.

3. Private Disciplines – Growth happens when we apply dedicate ourselves to prayer, bible reading, giving and fasting.

4. Personal Ministry – When we step up and serve we grow because we are stretching our faith. Being involved in some form of Christian service helps us grow in Jesus.

5. Pivotal Circumstances – Sometimes our growth happens because we are in the right place at the right time. This might be something from a conversation to a mission trip to a work encounter. Something just happened that we often can’t explain.

Through my years of ministry I have found these to be true for dozens of people.

So what is God using to grow your faith? Are you open to the possibility that He might have something greater in store for you today and this coming year?