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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Hunt

The Hunt
By Chris Mullis – April 14, 2014
He stalks his prey. He is the hunter. He is alive. 
He senses the world around him more deeply.
To most it must seem an incredibly boring exercise—
to walk through the woods searching for game that never appears,
to sit listening in a tree stand shivering from the cold,
to come home empty handed more often than not.
Yet to those who know, it is the way you really hear the birds and the wind,
or sense a quiet that is not really quiet at all.
It is the way the snap of a twig turns on the ancient instincts in your soul,
remembering thousands of years of the hunt
when the next meal depended upon the success of actions took.
It is the way your entire being—every sense, every reflex and intuition—
comes alive the moment your prey reveals itself.
It is failing in the critical moment because you hesitate or
succeeding because you are decisive.
It is hours, days, months, or years of hunting
compressed into the moment of a squeezing trigger or flying arrow.
It is the sacredness of standing over a living creature in the last moments
as life bleeds out because of actions you chose.
It is seeing the blood on your hands and knowing you are innocent.
Those who don’t know may say it is cruel.
Perhaps they romanticize life, unaware of the real sacredness of it.
Perhaps they are unwilling to truly taste.
But those who consciously taste also know.

Home is Where You Make It

Home is Where You Make It
Christmas Eve Message
Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancĂ©e, who was now obviously pregnant.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

            Christmas is a time when people like to be at home.  Most businesses still close on Christmas day (though more and more are staying open).  They close so that people can be at home with their family for the holiday.  Yet, there are some places that cannot close.  No one wants fire stations of police stations to close on Christmas.  (What if there is a fire or a crime on Christmas day?)  My wife Kelly is a nurse and she has to work tomorrow night, because—believe it or not—babies are still born on Christmas!
            The shepherds in the story from Luke were working on the first Christmas night.  They were not at home warming by the fire.  They were out working the night shift keeping the sheep safe when the angels appeared to them. 
            And then, there is Mary and Joseph.  If anyone wanted to be home, I’m sure it was Mary and Joseph.  Mary, a young girl having her first child, was miles away from home and everything that was comfortable to her. 
            Sometimes when Kelly and I go to visit family in middle Georgia, we will get hotel to stay the night.  My mom’s house is not big enough to sleep my whole family comfortably.  Neither is my mother-in-law’s.  Sometimes we split up and send part of the family to my Mom’s house and part to my mother-in-law’s, but that has it’s on challenges too (Who’s gonna stay where?  How are we going to get back together in the morning?)  Sometimes it’s just easier and more comfortable to get a hotel and call that home for the night.
            Mary and Joseph couldn’t even get a hotel room.  They tried, but all the rooms were full.  So, all they had to call home for the night was the stable where they kept the animals.   

Sometimes, home is where you make it.
            Life is messy.  It doesn’t always go the way you plan.  Babies are born at inconvenient times.  The hotel doesn’t always have enough room.  So you have to make do with what you have.  Sometimes, you make home where you are.
            In Philippians 4:12-13, Paul said, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”
            You see, when your heart is right with God, God can teach you to bear with any inconvenience.  But don’t get the impression that God just makes you tough enough to grit and bear it.  God can actually take an impoverished situation and turn it into an abundant life.
            Take Mary and Joseph.  There were no doctors or nurses or cozy state-of-the-art birthing rooms available.  Mary gave birth in a barn and laid her precious baby in a manger with animals all around watching.  Yet, angels announced his birth and the shepherds came running to see the miracle child.  Before long, Wisemen came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But the greatest gift of all was the privilege of bearing and raising the Son of God.  This was not merely getting by.  This was being at the very center of God’s eternal plan to save humanity.
            I don’t know if Mary and Joseph knew the full ramification of what they were doing the night Mary gave birth to the Christ.  I think they had some clues, but didn’t understand in full.  That’s the way most of life is.  We may suspect something important is happening in our life, but we don’t fully understand what it is.  All we know is that this is the hand life has dealt us and we can complain about it and mope around, or we can have faith that God is doing something truly amazing—that God has already given us a tremendous blessing we just don’t fully understand yet.
            Several from our church went Christmas caroling to our at-home members.  (These are members of our church who for health reasons are not able to get out much.  Many of them live in assisted living or nursing homes.)  Nancy Ware, Rena Gallman, and I had the privilege of visiting with Virginia Wallace over at Tranquility Assisted Living.  I asked Virginia if she liked living at Tranquility and her response was full of wisdom.  She said, “I love it her.  It’s a very nice place.  Of course, no one wants to leave their home and move into assisted living, but I couldn’t ask for better.  You can choose to be unhappy because you are not at home anymore, or you can choose to be happy.  It’s up to you.  I am very happy to call Tranquility my home.  It is a wonderful place.”
            We would all do well to listen to Virginia’s advice.  Your attitude makes all the difference.  So whether you find yourself like Virginia in assisted living, or if you find yourself like Mary and Joseph and all you have is a stable and a manger, remember:  home is where you make it.  Maybe you ought to get busy making it a home. 

An Invitation to Come Home
            I want you to remember that any home we have in this life is only temporary.  Ultimately, our Home is with God.  Even when this life comes to an end, we have a Home awaiting us in Heaven.  Hebrews 13:14 tells us, “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”
            If you want to go Home for Christmas this year (not necessarily your family home or your childhood home, remember, we are talking in a spiritual sense), you must get your heart right with God.  1 Peter 3:18a tells us, “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.”
            The glorious Good News of Christmas is that, through Jesus Christ, God tore down every obstacle that keeps us from being at Home with Him.  There’s nothing in the way—no sin that can’t be forgiven, no fear or anger or grief or shame that can’t be overcome.  All you have to do is decide that you truly want to be at Home with God.  Do you want to be at Home with God?  Will you decide to come Home today?  As for me, I’ll be Home for Christmas this year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

I'll Be Home for Christmas, Part 4 - Anger

Isaiah 61:8-11
8 “For I, the Lord, love justice.
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be recognized
    and honored among the nations.
Everyone will realize that they are a people
    the Lord has blessed.”

10 I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
    For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
    and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom dressed for his wedding
    or a bride with her jewels.
11 The Sovereign Lord will show his justice to the nations of the world.
    Everyone will praise him!
His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring,
    with plants springing up everywhere.

Over the last few weeks, we explored how Jesus helps us overcome sin, manage our time wisely, and deal with grief so we can be at Home with God this Christmas.  Today, we will look at one more common obstacle that can keep us from saying, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”—anger. 
            I once heard a Christmas song that said, “Half way round the world, sometimes that’s how it seems when walls of anger keep us from familiar Christmas scenes.  We ache for them to disappear, but don’t know how to start.  Lord with Your light, somehow tonight, bring Christmas to our hearts.”  I love those lyrics because they expresses so beautifully the way many people feel this time of year.
            This year, don’t let anger keep you from saying, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  In an imperfect world, we have many reasons to be angry.  Anger can be a normal and healthy emotion that motivates us to seek justice.  But anger also has a dark side.  When it is not channeled properly, it can fester deep inside a person and turn into something very dark and ugly.  Anger can become a prison that keeps us locked away from those we love and those we are called to love.
            Jesus came to help us overcome the walls of anger that keep us from being at Home with God.  He has the power to break our chains, but we must cooperate with his liberating work.  The first step is to be willing to let go of our anger.  Sometimes, anger feels good.  It makes us feel good about ourselves when we hold another in contempt for the bad things they’ve done.  But we must humble ourselves and remember that we are not perfect either. 
Christmas is a time when we think of that cute baby, Jesus, lying in a manger, but we forget that Isaiah 53:5-6 says, “He was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.”
            We have no right to self-righteous indignation against anyone.  No one is perfect.  We have all sinned.  Jesus came to bring forgiveness.  The famous prayer he taught us says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”[i]  It is not good for us to harbor resentment. 
We should deal with our anger with humility and love.  The moving words of 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 are a good model for us to follow.  “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.”  How much better off we would be, how much easier it would be for us to get along if we embodied this kind of love—especially with the people to whom we are closest.
            Patience and kindness…  How often do we overreact about some silly little thing?  It’s easy to be irritable and impatient with your family.  It’s as if they know just how to push your buttons.  Have you ever seen the movie, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?”  In the movie, the Griswold’s plans for a big family Christmas, but it turns into a big disaster.  The father, Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), is obsessed with making everything go perfectly during the holiday season, but as soon as everyone arrives, things start going haywire, especially when Cousin Eddie shows up with his crazy family as uninvited, surprise guests from Kansas.  Cousin Eddie (played by Randy Quaid) is well-meaning but, sloppy, obnoxious, and rude.  He drives Clark Griswold crazy!
            Every family has a “crazy Cousin Eddie.”  He’s the guy that dresses weird or smells funny or acts crazy.  If you can’t figure out who in your family is the “Crazy Cousin Eddie,” watch out—it might be you!!!  Humility reminds us we’re all a little bit “crazy” in our own way.  Yet God loves us in spite of our irritating habits.  Patience and kindness and humility help us to bear with the idiosyncrasies of others without being irritable or rude.
            And love keeps no record of wrongs…  This doesn’t mean we pretend as though a wrong didn’t happen.  It means we don’t keep beating people up about their past sins.  Jesus said, “If your brother wrongs you seven times in a day and each time repents and asks forgiveness; you must forgive him.”[ii]  You shouldn’t hold people hostage with yesterday’s sins.  If they repent, forgiven them and try to move on.
Here’s some more helpful advice gleaned from scripture about dealing with anger.  Avoid acting on impulse when you are angry.[iii]  When tempers flare, wisdom takes a back seat to emotion and you do things you will regret latter.  Wait until you calm down and can think more clearly.  Timing is very important.  And try not to impulsively speak your mind when you are angry.[iv]  A sharp tongue cuts its own throat.  (That’s not in the Bible, but it’s true!)  Wait until you aren’t so hot before you speak your mind with a sharp tongue.  That way you will choose your words more carefully or even realize that you don’t need to say anything at all.  And avoid disciplining people when you are angry.[v]  The difference between harmful abuse and helpful discipline can be as little as ten seconds.  Stop, take a deep breathe, count to ten, and ask your self, “Is what I am about to do retaliation?  Or am I genuinely trying—in love—to help this person do better next time?”
            Because Jesus, the Word of God, became flesh and lived among us, he understands the struggles we face that make being Home for Christmas difficult.  But because Jesus is the Son of God, He has the power to overcome any obstacle that threatens to separate us from God. 
            What keeps you from being at Home with God?  Is it sin? Are you too busy?  Are you weighed down by a load of grief?  Is there anger in your heart?  Jesus understands your struggles and he has made a way for you to come Home.  Do you hear him calling you Home?  Will you accept his invitation?  Will you come Home for Christmas this year?   

Gracious Heavenly Father,
            Thank You for inviting us Home for Christmas.  Help us to be faithful as we take up our cross and follow Jesus on the road that leads us Home.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

[i] Matthew 6:12
[ii] Luke 17:1 (paraphrased)
[iii] 1 Samuel 19:9-10
[iv] James 3:5
[v] 2 Corinthians 2:5-7, Ephesians 6:4

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I'll Be Home for Christmas, Part 3 - Grief

Isaiah 61:1-3
1The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
3 To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
    that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

The Obstacle of Grief
            In the last two articles of this series, we explored how Jesus helps us overcome sin and get our priorities straight so we can be at Home with God this Christmas.  Another obstacle that keeps us from saying, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is grief.  Losing someone who is dear to you is traumatic.  Some have said it is like having one of your limbs cut off.  You may “get on” with life, but you may never fully “get over” your loss because your life has changed forever. 
Christmas can be especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones.  People often feel guilty because everyone says they are supposed to feel happy at Christmas, but instead they feel sad and lonely.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you how you should feel.  There is no right or wrong way to feel.  You can’t control the way you feel.  You just feel the way you feel.  And everybody grieves in their own unique way.  Some people who grieve are dramatic and tearful.  Some are very reserved.  Some people grieve for a long time and some seem to work through their grief quickly.  We must be patient with ourselves and others as we grieve.
Grief is important and necessary.  Psychologist tell us that people who repress their grief find it will eventually bubble to the surface latter on—even if it’s ten years down the road.  It’s important to participate in the process of grief so it doesn’t cause problems latter in life.  Even Jesus—the son of God—grieved.  The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:34, “Jesus wept.”  He wept because his dear friend Lazarus died.  He grieved, even though Jesus knew he would raise him back to life in just a few moments.
One of the beautiful things about Christmas is that it reminds us that God cares about us.  In Jesus Christ, God wrapped our injured flesh around His Holy Spirit and became one of us.  He walked a mile in our shoes.  His name is Emmanuel—God living with us.  He is with us in the happy times and the sad times.  God is with us in our grief.  Because of Christmas, we never have to be alone—even when we feel alone.
And because Jesus was born on Christmas our grief will not last forever, but only for a season.  Even if our grief lasts until we take our final breath, it will not last beyond the grave.  For at death, we are liberated from the pain and suffering of this world.  In heaven, there is no more night and no more pain.  The only tears shed in our Heavenly Home are tears of joy.  Indeed, many of the people we grieve for in this life are at Home with God in Heaven this very moment!  They are experiencing the ultimate reality of the hope and joy and peace and love we pray for and long for and sing about and celebrate at Christmas time!
I think Richard Lewis Detrich says it best in his book How to Recover from Grief.  He says:
Over the years we’ve created a highly commercialized cultural myth that Christmas is a time of happiness, good cheer, family, and friends.  We feel guilty, upset, and cheated if, because of grief, we don’t experience the orgasm of happiness that seems to be expected.  But Christmas is, after all, a time of holy days and not a happy daze.  The meaning of Christmas is in the event, in the coming of Christ into our world and into our lives.  Focus on that event.  Christ wasn’t born at a party or even a family reunion but in a stable, with few other people around.  Planning ahead and focusing on the meaning of Christmas will help you through this difficult time.[i]

            The Home God invites us to is a place where tears are welcome.  You don’t have to act as if you don’t feel sad.  You don’t have to feel guilty for your sorrow.  When no one else understands, God understands your pain—He has lived it; He is with you as you go through it. 
God’s Home is not a commercialized fantasy
where everything is happy, happy, happy. 
God’s Home is a reality that deals candidly
with real pain and ultimately overcomes it.

            Because Jesus, the word of God, became flesh and lived among us, he understands the struggles we face that make being Home for Christmas difficult.  But because Jesus is the Son of God, He has the power to overcome any obstacle that threatens to separate us from God. 
            What keeps you from being at Home with God?  Is it sin? Are you too busy?  Are you weighed down by a load of grief?  Jesus understands your struggles and he has made a way for you to come Home.  Do you hear him calling for you today?  He is calling you Home.  Will you accept his invitation?  Will you come Home for Christmas this year? 

Gracious Heavenly Father,
            Thank You for inviting us Home for Christmas.  Help us to be faithful as we take up our cross and follow Jesus on the road that leads us Home.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

[i] Richard Lewis Detrich and Nicola J. Steele; How to Recover from Grief; revised edition; page 23

Monday, December 7, 2015

I'll Be Home for Christmas, Part 2 - Priorities

Isaiah 40:3-5

Christmas is traditionally a time when people like to go home to be close to family.  Unfortunately, not everyone is able to go home for the holidays.  Things get in the way.  There are Christmas parties to attend, extra shopping to do, meals to prepare, special activities for our kids and grandkids…  The Christmas season is an extremely busy time of year!  We may just be too busy or too broke to go home this year. 
Even so, Christmas is a time when we long to go home to a place where we feel at peace, where love is freely given and freely received.  Ultimately, our Home is with our Heavenly Father.  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas over the next few weeks, I want to challenge you to think of “Home” in its broader, spiritual sense.  Today, we will look at how being too busy can be an obstacle to going Home spiritually. 

Isaiah 40:3-5
Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
    for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
    for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
    and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
    and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
    The Lord has spoken!”

Changing Your Ways
            This passage was written hundreds of years before Christ was born.  It looks forward to his coming and challenges people to change their ways to get ready for the Son of God.  The passage encourages people to clear out anything that gets in the way of the Lord’s coming.  That’s good advice as we prepare for Christmas.
In order to “go Home” in a spiritual sense, you have to repent of your sins.  Repentance starts by recognizing you have gone astray, that you’ve messed up, that you’ve put something before God.  But repentance is more than just feeling sorry.  Repentance means to change your ways with God’s help.  Today, I want to suggest five real changes God can help you make that will lead you Home.  In order to make these changes though, you might have to clear out something else from your life to make room.
            It all starts with your priorities.  Your priorities are what’s important to you.  Priorities are what you spend most of your time, money, and energy on.  For example, if your top priority is to go home to see your parents for Christmas, you will make it happen.  You won’t let anything get in the way.  You will ask for time off from work, buy an expensive plane ticket for travel, and do whatever else it takes to go home if that is your top priority.  (It’s OK if that’s not your top priority.  A top priority of my household on Christmas is to NOT go anywhere but to STAY home.  That’s our family time.  Anyone is welcome to come see us, but we’re not going anywhere if we can help it.  We’re already home!)
            I want you to think of this in spiritual terms.  If your top priority is ultimately to go Home to be with God (and I think it should be), then what do you need to do to make it happen?  I would like to suggest five simple changes you can make that will help lead you Home. 
Number one.  Worship Christ at church every Sunday.  As we prepare for Christmas, I challenge you not to miss a Sunday in December.    From there, make weekly worship a goal for the whole year.  I suggest you should miss no more than five Sundays in a year.  That’s my goal; maybe it can be yours.  That still gives you enough spares in case you are sick or on vacation or for other unexpected things that come up.  Of course, I understand that there are always special circumstances.  My wife is a nurse and she sometimes has to work on Sundays.  You may be in a similar situation, but you can still make worship in church a top priority.  Figure out a reasonable goal and stick to it.  Make worship in the church a top priority.

Number two.  Study God’s Word, the Bible.  I recommend you read at least one chapter every day.  It takes less than five minutes, but over time it will make a world of difference in your spiritual health.  In addition, I suggest you participate in at least one group Bible study each week.  Join a Sunday school or Bible study.  Come to church on a Wednesday night.  Youth and children can attend youth or children’s programs.  These times of learning with other Christians is where you will see real spiritual growth.
Number three.  Stay connected to Jesus through daily prayer.  Prayer is the heart of an intimate relationship with Jesus.  You can’t have a relationship with anyone if you don’t talk regularly.  I suggest you talk to Jesus in the morning when you get up and then again before you go to bed.  In between, you can say a blessing before each meal.  Add to this short prayers throughout your day and you’ll have a dynamic relationship with Jesus.
Number four.  Serve the Lord by loving your neighbors.  Let loving service be your goal throughout each day.  You don’t have to overcommit yourself.  Just start by volunteering for one thing with church and one thing outside of church.  These will help you build your spiritual muscles and can be a real blessing to you and others.
Number five.   Give.  I challenge you to give 10% of your income to the church.  That’s the biblical standard for giving and you won’t regret doing it.  If you’re not already a tither (someone who gives 10% of their income), then try it for the month of December.  But don’t stop there, go the extra mile.  Seek to become an extravagantly giving person.  Give more effort at work.  Be generous with your time to your friends.  Surprise people with the way you always give more than expected. 

Make it a Priority
Adding these five priorities to your life will help you be at Home with God.  Now, some people will argue, “But I don’t have time to do all these things.”  Time is not really the problem.  The issue is what we make time for.  We make time for things that are truly important.  We always find a way to afford things we really care about.
            Isaiah 40:3 says, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord!  Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!  The Truth is, we may need to clear away some of the less important activities to make room for more important stuff.  The Truth is, we may need to spend less on ourselves so we have more with which to be generous.  I’m not saying it will be easy, but it is that simple.  And I can tell you this, you will be filled with so much more peace and contentment when you’re priorities are straightened out.  But most important, putting Jesus first is the only way you will ultimately go Home to heaven to be with God when this life comes to an end. 
So, what do you think?  Can you truly say, “I’ll be Home for Christmas?”

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why are We Giving Away a TV at Church?

"But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet." Luke 15:22

God gives extravagantly. 
When we deserve only reproach and punishment, God forgives and showers us with love.  His love is extravagant and it doesn't make sense! But I'm glad He gives extravagantly.

God’s extravagant giving inspires us to give. This is why we give gifts at Christmas. Even though it is Jesus' birthday, we give gifts to each other because God gave an extrordinary gift to us--His Son.

This month we are giving away extravagant gifts at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Dalton.  In addition to tons of other cool gifts, we will give away a Samsung Galaxy Tab, a Fitbit, and a 42 inch Sanyo TV.

What! Has the church lost it's mind and
been swallowed up in the world's materialism? Absolutely not!
However, God has blessed us beyond all reason and measure with His extravagant love and blessings.  So, we want to turn around and give extravagantly to others the way God gave to us.  That is why we give to the needy all year long through DOCUP and Family Promise and Be the Church and missionaries and many other outreach efforts. And that is why we are giving you a chance to receive a fabulous Christmas gift from the church each Sunday this month.

So come and bring as many friends as you can! Because you might just find the most extravagant gift of all--eternal life through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 30, 2015

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Isaiah 64:1-9

Christmas is traditionally a time when people go home to be close to family.  Unfortunately, not everyone is able to go home for the holidays.  There are often obstacles in the way that keep us from going home.  Home may be too far away.  We may be too busy to go home.  Or it may be too painful to because we don’t get along with our family or we may be overcome with grief as we think of loved ones who have passed away.
Even so, Christmas is still a time when we long to go home to the place where we feel at peace, where love is freely given and freely received.  Ultimately, our Home is with our Heavenly Father.  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas over the next few weeks, I want to challenge you to think of “Home” in its broader, spiritual sense.  Consider how Jesus came to overcome whatever keeps us from being at home with God.
Sometimes Home seems too far away.  I think of our brave soldiers serving oversees.  This must be an especially difficult time of year for them.  They feel the same longings we feel to go home for Christmas, but their duty to our country will not allow it.  For them, home must seem especially far away this season.
In a similar way, there is a deep spiritual longing in the heart of humanity to be at home with God, but sin separates us so far from Him it seems impossible to go Home.  Throughout history, men and women of faith have sensed this obstacle and longed to find a bridge between God and humanity.  People have gone to great lengths to cross this chasm, but all human efforts fail.  The prophet Isaiah wrote of the Jewish longing to be at home with God in Isaiah 64:1-9.  This was written over 500 years before Christ was born and laments how sin separates humanity form God.

Isaiah 64:1-9
1Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!
    How the mountains would quake in your presence!
As fire causes wood to burn
    and water to boil,
your coming would make the nations tremble.
    Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame!
When you came down long ago,
    you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations.
    And oh, how the mountains quaked!
For since the world began,
    no ear has heard
and no eye has seen a God like you,
    who works for those who wait for him!
You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind.
Yet no one calls on your name
    or pleads with you for mercy.
Therefore, you have turned away from us
    and turned us over to our sins.

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father.
    We are the clay, and you are the potter.
    We all are formed by your hand.
Don’t be so angry with us, Lord.
    Please don’t remember our sins forever.
Look at us, we pray,
    and see that we are all your people.

Christmas Materialism
God did look and see His people.  Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior.  God loves us so much He sent his son Jesus to bridge the gap that sin places between us and God.  Jesus already did everything necessary to make a way for us to go Home spiritually.  In order to overcome the obstacle of sin that keeps us from being at Home with God we must:  believe in Jesus, repent of our sin, and invite Jesus into our life. 
Unfortunately, few people consciously recognize that they are lost and far from Home.  We mistake the temporary trappings of this world for things of eternal value.  And so, as Isaiah said in verse 7, “No one calls on [God’s] name or pleads with [God] for mercy. Therefore, [God has] turned away from us and turned us over to our sins.”
The Christmas season often heightens our pursuit of worldly things.  It is a time of great excitement and expectation.  Retailers play off this to increase sales and make more money.  A friend of mine told me a funny story that illustrates the effect the Christmas hype can have on people.  He said he once stood in line to see Santa Clause with his little boy.  Of course, it was a long line with many children eagerly waiting to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.  They must have stood in line for nearly an hour.  Then, just before Ken and his boy got their turn, Santa stood up and said, “I’ve had enough of this!”  He ripped off his beard and hat, threw them down, and walked off the job.  Ken just stood there dumbfounded with his jaw on the floor.  He didn’t know what to say to his son.  Would his image of Christmas and Santa Clause be shattered?  Then, his son looked up and said, “Dad, what’s the matter with that elf?  He’s not doing a very good job filling in for Santa!”
The excitement builds as we wait for Christmas to come.  We wait and wait and finally we get our turn at Christmas and then we are disappointed.  Christmas was not all it was cracked up to be.  Why?  Because we can’t find true peace, joy, and happiness in a fat man dressed up in a red suit. 
Sometimes, even visiting family for the holidays isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Maybe we have fond memories of how great Christmas was in the good ole days.  And maybe it seems things can never be as good as they once were.  The music just isn’t as good, the food isn’t as tasty, the presents aren’t as special, the laughs aren’t as funny, the relatives aren’t as friendly…  Could it be that sometimes we even substitute family for God?  And when we do, we are always disappointed.
That’s not what Christmas was meant to be.  Christmas is the celebration of God’s love revealed to us through the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus was born to remind us and invite us to come Home to God.  Jesus lived to show us the way Home.  He died to overcome the obstacle of sin that keeps us away from Home.  He rose from the grave because not even death can keep us from being at Home with our Father in Heaven. 
1.     Repentence
The key to overcoming sin is repentance.  Jesus has already broken the power of sin over us, but we must repent—that means to turn away from sin and turn to God.  But how do we actually repent.  First, we must ask ourselves in all honesty, “What do I put in the place of God?”
  I have a good friend who is a die-hard Tennessee Volunteers football fan.  He used to spend all his time tracking statistics on his team, watching games… He even lost sleep over whether or not they would beat Georgia!  But one day a few years ago as he was praying, he realized that he was being foolish.  He spent more time on a silly college football team than he did on his family.  He was even more passionate about the VOLS than he was about God.  When he came to his senses, my friend asked God to forgive him and he repented.  That means he changed the way he lived his life.  He’s still a Tennessee Volunteers football fan, but instead of being a fanatic sports fan, he’s a fanatic God fan.  And football never comes before God or the things that are truly important in life.  

2. Ask Forgiveness
Once we are aware we have put something before God, we must ask forgiveness.  It’s OK to ask for forgiveness in general… because we may never be fully aware of all the things we put before God.  But we should also reflect deeply on our life and then ask for forgiveness for the specific things that God reveals we have put before Him.  

3. Let God Change You
Next, we must let God change our behavior.  It is good to be sorry for our sins, but just feeling sorry is not enough.  There must also be a change in our behavior.  Change comes as a result of a personal encounter with Jesus.  I hope then, you will pray for more and more personal encounters with Jesus that you may be changed.  And pray for God to open your eyes more and more so you can recognize how you have already encountered Jesus in your life.  These divine encounters have profound, life-changing effects on us.  They help us to truly repent and come Home to God.
We change as a response to God’s love.  I think about the lady who was caught in the act of adultery in the passage from John 8:1-11.  She was caught red-handed, dragged from the bed by an angry mob, and thrown at the feet of Jesus.  According to the law, she was supposed to be stoned to death.  The mob demanded an answer—should they stone her or not.  You remember Jesus’ response.  He said, ““All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.  When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.””[i]
The Bible doesn’t tell us what became of her after this, but an early church tradition says she went on to become a saint.  If that’s true, she didn’t become a saint to impress Jesus.  He had already seen her at her worst and he loved and forgave her anyway.  She became a saint in response to the great love of Christ that forgave her and spared her life when she was still a sinner.
The same is true for us.  We don’t try to be good people to earn God’s favor.  Isaiah said, “When we proudly display our righteous deeds, we find they are but filthy rags.”[ii]  We can’t impress God and we don’t have to.  God loves us in spite of our sin.  His love for us is demonstrated by Christ who gave up the glory of heaven to be born as a helpless baby in a rickety old manger.  He lived a perfect life and was crucified for our sins so that we can be washed clean—as white as snow. 

 So how do we respond to all this?  Well, we could disregard it and keep on falling for the same old hype the world offers every year.  We could place our hopes in the temporary pleasures the gifts of this world bring. 
Or we could spend our time preparing our souls for the coming of Christ.  One day, we will face Jesus and look into the eyes of the man who hung on a cross for our sins.  If Christ came to take you Home to heaven today, would you be ready to go or would you keep clinging to the temporary things of this world?  The season of Advent is a very fitting time to prepare our souls to go Home to be with God.  Won’t you look into the eyes of your Savior today and say, “I’ll be Home for Christmas this year?” 

Thank You Jesus, for the great gift you gave us on the cross at Calvary.  You have made a way for us to truly come Home for Christmas this year.  We long for Home—the place we’re always certain to find hope and joy and peace.  Reveal to us those things in our lives that we have put before God.  And help us to know that no sin is too big for you to overcome.  Urge us to repent and to always put God first in our lives so that we will be ready to be at Home with God this Christmas.  Amen.

[i] John 8:7b-11
[ii] Isaiah 64:6