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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

How to Pray for 30 Minutes

How to Pray for 30 Minutes
The following is one way you can pray for 30 minutes.  It’s adapted from a formula offered online by Athens First United Methodist Church.  If you struggle to pray for extended periods of time, perhaps this could help.  I encourage you to give it a try.  The formula is broken down into sections that include: Praise, Reading Scripture, Meditation, Confession, Intercession, Listening, Recording, Petitions, Praying for Family, Praying for the Church, Praying for Government Leaders, and Giving Thanks.  If you pray each section for 2 and a half minutes, you will end up praying for 30 minutes.  You will need a few things to follow this formula:  a Bible, a Notebook, a pen or pencil, and a quiet place where you can be a alone and uninterrupted for 30 minutes.

Start by praising God.  Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name.”  This is a great way to begin 30 minutes of prayer.  Call out to God. Praise Him for creation. Think about His love and wisdom and praise Him.  Think about the wonder of God’s creation and how they testify to the glory of God. And praise God for who He is.  Just revel in the wonder of the God of the universe.

Read Scripture
II Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good.”  Read a Psalm of praise to the Lord. Here are some suggestions:  Psalm 100, Psalm 23, Psalm 121, or Psalm 34 (or pick another one you like).  Pray through a Bible passage using the words as your prayer. Ask God to help you understanding as you read His Word. Let the Scriptures fill your mind and impact your heart. 

Meditate on God’s Word
Psalm 119:11 says, “I treasure your word in my heart.” Take a few minutes to meditate on the Scripture you have just read (or on other passages that come to mind).  Mull them over again and again in your mind.  What is God saying to you through them?

I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Take some time to evaluate specific attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions that God brings to mind as you pray. Confess your sins to God and humbly ask for His forgiveness and cleansing. 

I Timothy 2:1 says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” Pray to the Lord on behalf of others. Pray for renewal in the hearts of believers. Pray diligently for the needs that come to mind.

Next, quiet your heart and be still before God. Psalm 29:2, 4 says, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name; worship the Lord in holy splendor… the voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.”  Ask God to speak to you. Be quiet and listen.

Record your Prayers and Insights
Now, take out your notebook and something with which to write .  Take a few minutes to write down some notes that come to mind.  Write down the insights and direction God gave you during your prayer time. You can even write out a prayer or something you think God wants you to do.  It takes a little bit longer to write words than to say or think them.  Writing encourages you to slow down and dwell with God as He organizes your thoughts.

Petition for Daily Needs
Philippians 4:6–7 says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So spend a few minutes sharing your personal requests with God.  What do you need?  What are you worrying about?  Talk to God about it.

Pray for Family
Psalm 133:1 says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”
We want our family to live together in unity.  So, pray for your family. Pray for families in general. Ask the Lord to strengthen marriages and uphold family relationships.

Pray for the Church
1 Corinthians 12:12, 27 says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Pray for Pleasant Grove United Methodist church and all who seek to know the Lord there, and pray for our church leaders.  Go over your church prayer list.  Pray for the United Methodist Denomination as we prepare to tackle some very divisive issues at our next General Conference.  And pray for the universal Body of Christ, which is made up of believers all over the world of all different denominations.

Pray for Government Leaders
1 Timothy 2:2 says, “Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.”  Spend a few minutes to pray that God will give our government leaders wisdom and understanding. Pray for local, national, and international concerns. 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”  We need God to heal our land.  So pray for it.

Give Thanks
Now it’s time to finish your 30 minutes of prayer.  You may now find that 30 minutes is not enough time.  If your schedule allows it, you can keep praying.  God would love that!  But, when it’s time to finish praying, think about the good gifts God has given you and express your gratitude for His care and provision. Praise God for all He has done and for all He will do.  As 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”


If you follow this simple formula, praying each section for about two-and-a-half minutes, you will end up praying for 30 minutes.  It’s not that hard.  Perhaps the hardest part is making the time and committing to do it. 

February 17, 2021 is Ash Wednesday and begins the 40-day season of Lent—a season for Christians to devote themselves to prayer in preparation for the Easter celebration coming up in April.  Perhaps you can use this formula to pray for 30 minutes each day throughout the 40-day season of Lent.  You might find you like it so much, you want to make it a regular part of your day even after Lent is over.  I challenge you to give it a try.  Send me and email and tell me what time of day you want to pray and I will include you on our prayer board. 

Prayer is the lifeblood of a person’s relationship with God.  You can know about God (just like you can know about a famous athlete or celebrity); but prayer is spending time with God.  It is essential for every Christian to be devoted to prayer.  Let’s begin today.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Put Away Your Sword

I had not planned to speak on this subject today.  I planned to begin a sermon series called “The Way of Christ”.  But because of the events of this week, I felt compelled to change today’s message.  Those reading this include Republicans, Democrats, independents, progressives, and conservatives and everyone in between.  I’m not taking sides.  I love you all and what I have to say is for everyone. 

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus' arrest.  Jesus had just shared the Last Supper with his disciples and walked to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the authorities and the led a crowd of his enemies to the garden to arrest him.  

Matthew 26:52-56

51 But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.

52 “Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. 53 Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? 54 But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?”

55 Then Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me? Why didn’t you arrest me in the Temple? I was there teaching every day. 56 But this is all happening to fulfill the words of the prophets as recorded in the Scriptures.” At that point, all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Peter Cutting Off an Ear

This story about one of Jesus' disciples cutting off a man’s ear is so important that all four Gospel include it—Matthew Mark, Luke and John.  The Gospel of John says the mob was a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke simply said it was a crowd of men armed with swords and clubs.  The Gospel of John says it was Peter who cut off the man’s ear.  The other Gospel’s don’t tell us who did it.  The Gospel of Luke says Jesus healed the man’s ear.

The incident was very chaotic and happened so fast.  There wasn’t anyone standing by with a smart phone recording it all.  I’m sure it was hard for all the disciples to remember all the details perfectly.  It's no wonder their accounts vary a bit.  However, there is one thing they all reported.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all remember that Jesus told them not to fight.  In John 22:51, Jesus said, “No more of this!” And in Matthew 26:51, he said, “Put away your sword!  Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Dying by the Sword

Jesus is the most influential figure who ever lived.  He changed the world so drastically, we divide history by whether it happened before or after Jesus lived.  There have been many people who sought to change the world with the sword (or guns or missiles or bombs), but none has even come close to the influence Jesus had on the world.  And he did it all without a sword.  In fact, Jesus was able to have so much influence because he didn’t use a sword.


And I believe Jesus message to us today is the same he said to his disciples on that that dark night of his arrest.  “Put away your sword!”


We’ve had our swords out for a long time in this country.  And it’s gotten exponentially worse over the last decade.  I realize none of you are literally walking around with a sword.  But figuratively, we carry a sword.  The sword of which I speak is not a weapon with a long metal blade.  The sword we carry is an attitude that we have to fight each other to make life the way we want it to be.


Jesus said, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”  What we have been seeing more and more in our country and communities—what we saw vividly splashed across our television sets on January 6th as rioters stormed the Capital building in Washington DC—is what it looks like to die by the sword.  It's not necessarily a physical death--though 5 people died.  It's a spiritual death.  It's a moral death. It can even be the death of ideas or the right to influence public opinion.


What led us to this place—a place where thousands of people would gather at the capital and violently and foolishly rush past barricades and overwhelm law enforcement and illegally occupy the Capital for several hours?  What makes people act like this? 


We are so divided.  It’s not just that we don’t agree on everything.  (America is too big and too diverse for us to agree on everything; that’s never gonna happen.  We've never in our history agreed on everything.)  The problem is we are so angry we want to swing a sword at people with whom we disagree.  And maybe, we’ve been cutting off each other’s ears so long now that we don’t have any ears left to listen.  We don't use swords, but we cut off ears with words and insults and accusations and mistrust and disrespect.


There are times when it is necessary to draw a sword (or a knife or a gun) to defend yourself, but using a sword is not the way to make the world a better place.  It’s not the way to make America great.  And right now, we need to hear Christ’s words when he says, “Put away your sword!”  This is not the way.  Violence is not the way.  Fighting is not the way to make America great or the world the way God wants it to be.


The Way of Christ
Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  The people of Israel thought the Messiah would come to save them from their enemies—that he would fight for them with a sword and liberate them from the Romans.  Jesus knew that would never work. 


Jesus could have easily beaten the Roman army.  He said in Matthew 26:53, “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly?” Certainly, God’s angels could defeat the Romans.  However, Jesus knew a violent uprising would never work because it’s not how you change people hearts.  Only love can change people’s hearts.  

Love is how Jesus changed the world.  And love is how Jesus wants his followers to make the world a better place.  Love is how Jesus wants you to make America a better place.


And this is a message for everyone—Republicans, Democrats, independents, progressives, and conservatives and everyone in between.  It’s time to stop pointing fingers at everyone else and saying how evil they are.  It’s time to stop calling people names because of what party or philosophy they follow.  It’s time to start treating everyone with respect.  It’s time to start listening and learning from each other.  (You don’t have to agree with someone to respect them, to listen to them, and learn from them.)


It’s time to start living by love or else we will die by the sword.

What does that mean for you? The details may vary from person to person. Some suggestions might be to stop calling people names becasue of their political party or ideology.  Maybe you need to change your attitude and understand that people with whom you agree probably believe what they do for good reasons. They are not the enemy.  Quite often they share the same values as you, but just prioritize them differently.  

Most importantly, if you are a Christian who has committed your life to follow Jesus as your Lord, recognize your role and work as hard as you can to do things the way Jesus would do it.  Perhaps the way of Christ is best summarized in the prayer of St Francis of Assisi.

The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi

Lord make me an instrument of Your peace

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness joy.

O Divine master grant that I may

Not so much seek to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love

For it is in giving that we receive

And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned

And it is in dying that we are born

To eternal life.



Will you live this prayer?  Peter boasted he would die for Jesus.  I'm sure the other Disciples thought the same.  But we see in our scripture, they all fled.  They were probably willing to die for Jesus on a battlefield, but not on a cross.  It’s easy to pledge you will die for Jesus.  But will you live for him—even if it means dying on a cross instead of dying in glory on the battlefield?  Jesus' way is the way of the cross.


Monday, January 4, 2021

2021 State of the Communion Address

Today, as we gather for worship on this first Sunday of 2021, I want to pause for a moment to look back at the previous year and then look forward to the new one.  2020 proved the ancient truth written in Proverbs 19:21, “You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.”

As we leave 2020 behind, there is hope the new year will be better (even though COVID cases in our area are at their highest level so far).  No one really knows what 2021 has in store.  We hope the new vaccines are effective, cases will decline, and soon the dreadful word COVID will become a relic of the past.  The reality is, we don’t know how long the current crisis will continue or if a new one will arise.  Prudence calls us to be hopeful, but also cautious.  It also calls for faith because we know Jesus holds the future in his hands.  He walked with us through a very difficult year and we must trust He will continue through the remainder of this crisis and in whatever the future holds.

New Members: Jon, Andrea,
& Andrew Adams
Looking Back at 2020
We began 2020 like most years.  We were full of hope, doing God’s work, and enjoying life together in a brand new decade.  We welcomed our 98th, 99th, and 100th new members of the last decade--Jon, Andrea, and Andrew Adams.  People were posting pictures on social media for the #10YearChallenge, showing how they’d changed over the previous decade.  Our youth members led youth Sunday in January.  Coach Lamb was our guest speaker at a very successful Super Bowl Sunday worship service.  We enjoyed our annual sweethearts banquet with music by Heather Petero.
We had a 24 hour prayer vigil on Feb. 27, 2020

But some sensed trouble in our world--in politics, in our United Methodist denomination, and even in nature as natural disasters wracked our world.  We called for a day of prayer and fasting.  For 24 hours on February 27th, members of our church prayed and fasted.  Looking back at the troubles of 2020, some may question why so many disasters befell our world if we were praying so hard?  My faith leads me in a different direction.  I see that our prayer vigil prepared and fortified us for what was to be a very difficult year.  It was only 2 weeks later that the COVID-19 pandemic reached Georgia with its full force, causing the shut down of our schools, businesses, and even churches.

Fire in Australia in early 2020
Our 2020 experience was unprecedented.  The world has experienced plagues before--some far deadlier than COVID-19.  But never before had a plague spanned the whole globe all at once while reported on the news for everyone to see.  The economy suffered.  People were out of work.  Millions died and the random way the virus affected different people--mild symptoms for some and death for others--left everyone in doubt and fear.  Added to the virus were other serious troubles in our world--deep divisions, mistrust, racial injustice, and violence were plagues that spread as fast as COVID.

Building a Wheel Chair Ramp
And as sad as I am to think of the hurt and suffering and death that visited so many this past year, I am just as proud of the people of this church for finding so many ways to share the light of Christ in the darkness.  Let’s review.

We helped build a porch for the Teasley/Head family while Terry was recovering from kidney surgery. We also built a wheelchair ramp for Debby Castillo in preparation for her knee surgery.
We donated face masks and shields to the DEO Clinic

In lieu of a community Easter Egg Hunt, we gave candy filled Easter eggs to families in our community. People picked up Easter packets and had their own private, family Easter Egg Hunt.

New Flooring in the Sunday School Wing
With school canceled, we shifted our snack pack program from feeding school children to feeding refugees recovering from the Easter tornadoes that damaged Chattanooga and Murray County.

During the shortage, we donated masks and face shields to help volunteers at the DEO medical clinic, which provides free medical care to the neediest people in our community. These helped protect these brave volunteers so they could continue providing essential medical services to people in our community who might die without it.

We placed church yard signs around our community and displayed red ribbons to show support.

Donations from the Sara Brooker estate and others enabled us to renovate the floors in our SS wing and install a new digital LED sign.
Drive-Thru Trunk or Treaters

After months of isolation, we needed fellowship. So we had our summer Family Fun Days.

To help our burgeoning tech ministries, we hired Jeremy Barfield to take our online ministry to the next level.

We delivered dinners to feed the NW Bruins football team and also the CCHS marching band.

When everyone else canceled theirs, we offered a drive-thru trunk or treat.
We collected 91 boxes for Operation Christmas child.

During the pandemic, we went from having only one Sunday morning worship service to three: 9:00 AM, 10:55 AM and a full online worship service (at 10:55 AM). We have just added a call-in service where you can use a telephone to call in and listen to the service; so technically that makes four services. Despite shutting down on-site services for over two months in the spring (including Easter), and despite severe disruption for the rest of the year, our combined average worship attendance from online and onsite services was 145 (that’s an increase from 114 in 2019 to 145 in 2020). And despite all the disruption, our church finances were better in 2020 than any other time in the last ten years I’ve served as pastor of Pleasant Grove Methodist Church.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these are only stats for church-sponsored events.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways individual members of our church have made a distinct difference in a hundred thousand ways just by living out your lives as followers of Christ in your everyday lives--at home, at work, in school, wherever you are.  For among our number are teachers, government leaders, law enforcement officers, healthcare workers, retail workers, and many essential workers who kept our community going through the most difficult year I can ever remember.

That was 2020. And though I am saddened by the hurt and loss so many have experienced, I couldn’t be prouder of my church.  The church is not the building.  The church is people.

Looking Ahead
One thing I want you to know as we look to the future God wants for us is this:  You are capable of far more than you think you are.  You have adapted and thrived in a very difficult year.  You can do anything you put your mind to if you have faith and work hard.  I hope you will take hold of this new confidence.  As an individual, you can do amazing things and I hope you will work hard to do whatever God calls you to do.  Do not fear.  For the Lord almighty empowers you when you have faith in Christ. 

Whatever 2021 holds, I am confident Pleasant Grove will tenaciously find ways to do the things God calls us to do.  We will have many activities and accomplish a lot this year.  I won’t try to list them all (for I can’t even imagine them all).  Right now, I just want to share three essential things we need to do in 2021.

A Day of Prayer and Fasting - February 17
We need to have another day of prayer and fasting.  I don’t know what 2021 holds, but I know who holds 2021 in His hands.  Therefore, I want our church to have another day of prayer and fasting to make sure our spirits are in tune with God’s Holy Spirit.  This will give us courage and strength and wisdom for whatever 2021 brings.  I want to set aside February 17, which is Ash Wednesday, for 24 hours of prayer and fasting.  I invite each of you to participate by fasting from food (or some other item) and to also sign up to pray for at least 30 minutes sometime during that day.  We will have 30 minute time slots for the whole day and I want to see someone praying during every time slot.

A Service of Celebration/Thanksgiving 
At some point, we will have a service of celebration and Thanksgiving.  No one knows what will happen, but we anticipate life will eventually go back to normal (whatever that means). At some point, we hope the new vaccines will be widely distributed, COVID cases will drastically decrease, lockdowns and quarantines will be a thing of the past.  That will take time.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we will be able to announce it’s all over in one day.  It will happen gradually and even then it will take time for people to overcome their fear and accept it. Eventually, we will be able to look back and recognize things have gone back to normal.

Whenever that happens, I would like to have a special service of Thanksgiving to celebrate.  Like I said, I don’t know when that will be.  Right now, in my own mind, I’m thinking sometime in November--around Thanksgiving.  That seems to be the fitting time to do it.  Though I believe (and hope) we will move beyond COVID much sooner than November, I sense it may take until November before we actually all realize and agree that we have.  Whenever we can, we will give thanks and celebrate.

A New Vision for a New Normal
Speaking of going back to normal, I think we need to understand that it will be a new normal.  In some ways, life will go back to being just the way it was before COVID.  In other ways, it won’t.  Will people ever feel comfortable shaking hands, hugging, gathering in large crowds? I don't know; we will see.  

In some ways, I hope we don’t go back to the normal way we were before COVID.  Prior o COVID, most people took gathering in a crowd to worship at church for granted. I hope we never again take worshipping together for granted.  I hope we all continue to wash our hands and avoid being in public when we are sick, and maybe even wearing a mask when we are sick so we don't spread our germs; these are good, healthy habits I hope we keep.

Furthermore, I believe God has given the church a unique opportunity to reset.  I don’t want to waste this opportunity.  I invite you to personally consider what your “new” normal will be.  How do you want to live life when life goes back to normal?  Make your goals now and make a plan to accomplish your new way of living.

As for our church, I want to gather a group of visionary leaders from our church to discuss what our new normal will be.  What ministries and activities do we feel God wants us to pursue in the future?  Will we just go back to doing everything the way we were doing it prior to COVID?  Or are there some things we want to change or stop doing? And is there anything new we need to do instead?  Where can we improve our efforts?  We need leaders with vision to consider these things and chart a new path for Pleasant Grove going forward.
  I plan to gather some key leaders for a vision summit sometime this year so we will be ready for to hit the ground running when things return to normal.  We will probably have multiple meetings to help us chart the best course into a new future.

Other Things You Can Do to Help
I’m almost done, but I want to finish by offering a few things you can do in 2021 to help Pleasant Grove. First of all "Like" and "Follow" our Facebook page. Follow us on Instagram. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.  I would like to set some goals to get 1,000 likes on our church Facebook page; 500 followers on Instagram, and 100 subscribers to our YouTube channel.  So please, go over and like, follow, and subscribe.  This may seem insignificant, but it really helps our church increase our ability to share God’s Word as far as possible.

Join a small group.  I want you to be part of a small group at our church.  Attend an onsite Sunday school class or join Sherry’s online Zoom class or attend my morning devotions on Facebook Live at 8 AM.  I want everyone to engage in one of these small group offerings (however you feel most comfortable).  The Christian life is not passive but active. It requires more than just to sit passively in a pew in a worship service. It requires more than merely watching a service online. YOu need to engage with a small group of believers to encourage and learn from one another.

Lastly, make a commitment.  Have you been baptized?  Have you decided to follow Jesus?  Do you want to join our church?  Let’s not put these off any longer.  Let’s find ways to do these in 2021. For much of 2020, we mput this important commitments off, hoping the pandemic would go away and we would then be free to safely make our commitments. Let's not put these off any longer. There are safe ways for people to be baptized, profess their faith in Jesus, join as members of the church, or make other commitments. Let's not put these important things off; we can find safe ways to do these. Let's make our commitments in 2021. What commitment do you need to make? How can we help you mark that commitment and encourage you to live it out? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Send me a message.

If we put our faith in Christ and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance, I believe 2021 will be a great year, whatever it may bring.  Join with me as I renew my commitment to serve the Lord in everything I do.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Epochs of Israel - The Messianic Hope

This year, because of COVID, people may have to curtail many of their usual Christmas traditions.  Some are even forgoing visits with relatives that they may only see during Christmas.  Who would have thought last Christmas that this Christmas would be so strange?

And yet, Advent—the weeks leading up to Christmas—is a season of hope.  We hope that the number COVID cases will go back down.  We hope the new vaccines will be safe, effective, and available.  We hope that life will soon return to normal. 

Ultimate, as Christians, we have a great hope that Christ will soon come to bring His perfect Kingdom on earth—a kingdom where there will be no more suffering or sickness, no more tears of sorrow, and no more hurting or death.  For as Isaiah 9:6-7 says, “The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.”

This is the great hope of biblical Christianity.  It started way back with Israel in the Old Testament and developed through each epoch of Israel.  An epoch is a period in history, typically one marked by notable events or characteristics.  There were 4 major epochs in the history of Israel in the Bible.  Each stage was part of God’s ultimate plan to save humanity.  In my church congregation yesterday, we used a the following responsive reading to review the epochs of Israel. 

Responsive Reading Review
Pastor:  The Lord our God is mighty to save! His plan of salvation spans the whole course of human history.  The Lord rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. 

People: His faithful love endures forever!

Pastor:  In Epoch 1, the Lord He led the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land.

People: His faithful love endures forever!

Pastor:  In Epoch 2, the Lord raised up judges to rescue Israel from her enemies.

People: His faithful love endures forever!

Pastor:  In Epoch 3, the Lord established the house David to rule as kings of Israel.

People: His faithful love endures forever!

 Pastor:  But the people of Israel and their kings were not faithful to God. Finally, The Lord had to punish Israel.

People:  Babylon attacked and destroyed Jerusalem and took Israel away into exile.

Pastor:  But the Lord promised to bring Israel home.  A Messiah would come to save Israel.

People:  The Promised One would rule on David’s throne forever. This was Israel’s hope.

 All:  And so the Fourth Epoch of Israel begins—The Messianic Hope.

Isaiah 49:5-7

5 And now the Lord speaks—
    the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant,
    who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him.
The Lord has honored me,
    and my God has given me strength.
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

The Lord, the Redeemer
    and Holy One of Israel,
says to the one who is despised and rejected by the nations,
    to the one who is the servant of rulers:
“Kings will stand at attention when you pass by.
    Princes will also bow low
because of the Lord, the faithful one,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Israel’s Hope
This Christmas, we remember the story of Christ’s birth.  Everything about the birth of Christ is soaked in the Israel’s hope for a Messiah.  Remember how the angels announced to the shepherds, “For behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is [the Messiah], the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

By the time Jesus was born, Israel was a conquered nation.  The Roman empire occupied the land and extorting the people, forcing them to pay exorbitant taxes, to provide soldiers for the Roman army, to bring glory and success to Rome at the expense of Israel and her people. 

This was not how it was supposed to be.  Israel was God’s chosen people.  They were to be royal priests who enjoyed God’s special favor.  But the Romans treated them like dogs and there was nothing they could do.  Nothing but hope—hope for a Messiah to save them.  And it was into this great hope and longing that Jesus was born. 

God’s Hope
People usually can’t see beyond their own personal situation—their own hopes and dreams, their own suffering and pain.  God’s vision is infinite.  He sees the whole picture.  So while Israel only hoped for a Messiah to alleviate their personal suffering and political turmoil, God’s vision was to save the whole world.  In Isaiah 49:6 “He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.””

Imagine a Greater Hope
And so, as we draw nigh to Christmas, and as we hope for relief from COVID-19 (or whatever major struggle you face), I pray we will dare to tap more and more into God’s grander vision.  Can we go beyond our little hopes and dreams and embrace God’s greater hope?

Can we go further than merely hoping for healing from COVID-19?  Can we go further to hope for healing from all our brokenness?  Do we really want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic? Wouldn’t it be better to go forward to something new and better?

As for me, I hope for the coming of Christ and His great hope.  I join in the great Advent hymn with all my heart singing:

Come, thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee

Israel's strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart

Born thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a king
Born to reign in us forever
Now thy gracious kingdom bring

By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone
By thine own sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne

Whatever worry or struggle with, I pray your hopes will be greater than to just "Go back to the way things were.  God's hopes for you--for all of us--are greater than to just "go back."  God hopes for us all to "go forward" into something new and better.