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Showing posts with label Christmas in July. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas in July. Show all posts

Monday, July 22, 2019

Glory in the Heavens

When I think of July, I think of fireworks.  Most people probably don't think of Christmas in July.  But it's not a bad idea.  December is such a busy month and the holiday season is so commercialized; the true meaning of Christmas can get lost amidst all the hype and Christmas lights. So today, let's keep our thoughts firmly focused on the Christ Christmas celebrates. 

Slides – Luke 2:6-15
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Pointing People to God
Listen to that...  Do you hear it?  Silence is never really silent, is it?  There's always some sound in the background.  People coughing and shuffling their feet; the sound of the air conditioner running.  I wonder what sounds the shepherds heard that night as they were watching their sheep in the dead of the night outside Bethlehem. A fire crackling or sheep noises.  You only hear those kinds of sounds if you're quiet and paying attention. And so it was for the shepherds that night in Bethlehem when an angel appeared among them.  It was quiet and they were listening for any sounds that seemed out of the ordinary--a wild animal or some other danger.  That made the approach of the angel all that more obvious as the glory of God shown around them.  They came to point people to Jesus.

Jesus came to point people to God.   For years, God had sent signs to point people to God, but they were always missed or ignored. We’re usually too busy or self-absorbed to notice; and so God came Himself in the person of Jesus.  God really didn't want us to miss Him this time.  So God also sent angels to point the shepherds to the baby Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem.

The Angels
The angels came to point people to Jesus.  I have never seen an angel, let alone a whole host of them as the Christmas story describes. Have you? I've heard stories of other who've seen angels.  And the Bible tells many stories of their appearance.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament advises that we should always be kind to strangers, because you never know if it might be an angel in disguise.  I have never seen and angel (at least that I was aware of).  However, I have seen many other glorious wonders in Heaven that have pointed me toward Jesus and God.

Many people have seen fireworks blasting away in the sky this month.  Did you?  Do you remember the first time you saw fireworks?  I do.  What a glorious sight to see the colorful, sparkling lights fanning out like giant fiery hydrangeas in the sky!  To a young child, these are fascinating and captivating and beautiful.  As an adult, now more aware of the meaning of the Fourth of July as the celebration of our nation’s independence, the fireworks are even more magnificent because they represent to me how God set our nation free from the tyranny of Great Britain, against all odds.  And I can see God’s hand at work in the development of our nation as I remember how many have sacrificed throughout the years.

But there is another light show in the sky that points me to God—lightening.  Many are afraid of thunderstorms.  I was too when I was a young child.  To help, my mom would take me out on our screened-in front porch and hold me while we watched the storm together.  It is one of my fondest early memories—sitting in my mother’s lap in a rocking chair and her soothing voice, feeling the hot summer air quickly cooled by the wet rain falling as a misty breeze filtered through the screens.  And up in the sky, you can see the lightning flicker across the clouds away in the distance, like fire flickering in a giant, Japanese lantern floating across the sky.  And the deep rolling of the thunder that speaks of a tremendous underlying power in this world.  How glorious!  If there is a Creator who made it all, how glorious and beautiful and powerful must He be.

Do you ever go out at night, in the quiet, and just stare up at the stars?  I admit, I used to do it a lot more than I do now.  There is too much to distract me these days.  But as a child, we didn’t have air conditioning in our home and it was quite hot in the house by evening.  So, I often stayed outside in the summer for as long as I could.  And up in the sky you can see the same stars the shepherds saw in Bethlehem.  Throughout the ages, people have speculated as to what are these mysterious lights in the night sky.  Some have thought them to be gods or the spirits of their ancestors.  In modern times, science has shown they are giant balls of burning gas thousands of times a big as the earth and trillions of miles away.  The closest stars are around 4 light years away (i.e. it would take 4 years to get to them if you could travel at the speed of light).  The farthest stars are 5 billion light years away!  And there are about a billion trillion stars in the universe!  Some think science has disproved the existence of God.  But I look up at the glorious  stars in the heavens and see that God is more magnificent than we ever realized before!

I see living things in the heavens that point me to God too.  For instance, what a glorious thing it is to see a flock of pelicans soaring across the waves over the ocean.  How graceful they are—flying in perfect formation, making minute adjustments to the wind, barely needing to flap their wings, spotting a school of fish swimming in the water below, and then circling around to dive at breakneck speed and splash into the water to catch their meal.  We sometimes refer to an unintelligent person as a “bird-brain”.  That's ironic because with all our human intelligence and ingenuity, we only figured out how to fly relatively recently.  And now that we’ve had a little over a hundred years to practice, we still don’t even come close to the grace and beauty of a bird in flight.  If God created the birds that soar above, He is truly magnificent indeed.

And yet, He created people too.  And look at us!  We are amazing!  Of all the creatures in God’s green earth, we are unique and special!  There is no other animal like us.  The closest, scientists say, are chimpanzees.  And, yes, they are amazing too.  But there is no animal who can talk like us, write words on paper (and now type on a computer screen).  There is no animal that has looked at a bird and dreamed of being able to fly and then figured out how to do it.  There is no animal who has looked up at the stars in the night sky and wanted to go there and then built a rocket-ship to fly to the moon.  Some say that humans acquired these abilities by chance.  I say that makes no sense; I say the hand of God must have been involved for people to be so incredibly different from all the other creatures on the planet and to have learned all that we have and gained mastery of all others animals. 

Romans 1:20 All these things—fireworks, lightning, stars birds, people (and many more) point me to God.  It is absolutely true what Romans 1:20 says, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”

If we just look around, the evidence it there.  The existence and nature of God should be obvious to anyone who is honestly searching for answers.

But the glory of Christmas is that God didn't want to leave anything to chance.  Yes, we should know about God just by looking at all the glorious things He made.  But God wants to be absolutely sure you know Him.  And if you want a job done right, you do it yourself.  So God came Himself in the flesh.  Jesus is God. 

Matthew 1:23 - “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!  She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
John 1:1 - "In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God, and the Word was God." [Jesus is the Word.]
Hebrews 1:3 - "The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God..."
Colossians 1:15 - "Christ is the visible image of the invisible God."

Jesus is God.  He was God when the whole world was created.  He designed the birds and the clouds, and lightning and thunder.  He flung the stars across the universe with a word.  And He created you and me.   And yet, mysteriously, Jesus is also human.  He was human in every aspect: born as a baby, had to learn how to walk, grew up in a village, went to school, dealt with bullies and chores and being hungry and hot in the summertime and cold in the winter.  He knew about the yearnings of an adolescent heart, that wants to find their one true love and get married.  But Jesus, God in human flesh, came to our world for a special purpose.  He came to show us what God is like, how God loves us beyond all measure.  We are God’s one true love.  And He was willing to die for us.  And He did die for us on the cross at Calvary.

When we look at Jesus, we see God--the most perfect representation and proof of God.  We see God’s incredible love—to leave the glory of heaven to come live in our broken world and ultimately to die for us on a cross, to pay the price of our sin.  And now everything that could be done to point you back to God has been done.  All that’s left is a choice—your choice. 

Will you choose to follow God through Jesus Christ?
Or will you choose to continue to follow something or someone else?
I pray you choose Jesus.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Christmas Stands for Freedom

It's Christmas in July
            At my church, our tradition is to have a Christmas in July service every year.  It's a way to do something special in the middle of July, which can sometimes be an off month while so many families are away on vacation.  I also enjoy the Christmas in July service because we get to hear the Christmas story and sing Christmas songs, without all the business and stress normally associated with the holiday in December.  And really, any time is a good time to celebrate Christmas because Christmas is the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ.  The Good News goes on to tell us how Jesus lived, how he died on the cross for our sin, and how he rose again on the third day.  Today, I want to explain how Jesus did all this to win our freedom.  (Click here to watch a really cute and funny retelling of the Christmas story by the kids of Southland Christian Church.)

Galatians 2:19-21
19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.

There are 613 Old Testament Laws
            Some of the 613 Old Testament laws are moral laws.  They forbid things like murder, theft, adultery, sexually immoral, etc....  These moral laws seem to be universal across all cultures throughout history.  You almost don't need to be told not to do these things.  For instance, people just inherently seem to know you shouldn't murder--that killing another human being is abhorrent.  Even the most uncivilized cultures have known this.  (People still commit murder, but they know it's wrong or use some twisted reasoning to justify it.)
            Other laws in the Old Testament are civil laws.  They were designed to help the Hebrew/Israelite people living together in society get along.  Anytime you get a lot of people living together, it seems you need rules so everyone can get along.  Many of those civil laws are obsolete for us today, because we don't live in ancient Israel and most of us aren't farmers (and if we are, we don't do it the way they did it back then).  So many of the civil laws of the Old Testament no longer apply to us today.
            A third set of laws were ceremonial (or religious) laws.  These were rules about religious festivals and ceremonies designed to help people practice their religion.  These are law about what kinds of food will make you unclean if you eat them and how to sacrifice animals to atone for sin, etc. 
            Moral laws are universal principles of right and wrong (which we know in our heart, unless we are mentally ill or just choose to ignore our conscious).  The Old Testament civil laws are pretty much obsolete because we are so far removed from the context and culture they addressed.  And Jesus came and set us free from the religious, ceremonial laws. 

What is the Purpose of All these Laws?
            God gave the Law for a reason.  We have already mentioned some practical functions of the various laws.  However, in Romans 3:20, Paul tells us the main purpose of the Law.  He said, “No one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”  The Law in the Old Testament shows us how messed up we are and how desperately we need God to come and save us because we cannot save ourselves.  When we start to think we are good people, the Law shows us how sinful we are.  You could say the Law is the Bad News that makes us so thankful for the Good News of Jesus Christ.  One thing we can know for sure:

The Law Cannot Save You
            Before Jesus came, the people of the Bible believed you could only earn God’s approval and be saved from sin and death by fulfilling all the 613 Old Testament laws.  People broke down into different schools of thought about this.  One group was the Sadducees.  These were very intellectual types.  They tended to be cynical about religion.  They saw how impossible it was to fulfill the whole law and so just looked at religion as a way to enhance your life, maybe a tool to advance yourself, or for the elite to wield power over the masses.  You might argue that many Sadducees were practical atheists or agnostics.  They believed this life was all you had to live and there was no life after death.  Therefore, they used religion to gain as much power as possible in this life.  They are still people like that in our world today.
            Another group that took the opposite approach of the Sadducees were the Essenes.  Many believe John the Baptist was an Essene.  The Essenes thought society was so corrupt you had to completely separate from it.  So they went out into the wilderness and decided to start over from scratch.  They were fanatical about their religion and wanted to build their own utopia where everyone followed the Old Testament Law perfectly.  Unfortunately, the Essenes soon realized the new society they formed was not be perfect because they were not perfect and their imperfection made their utopia imperfect.  There are people in our world today that subscribe to a similar view as the Essenes.  They think our world is so corrupt, they want to pull away from it.  So they start their own commune or cult that aims to start over.  Others, move way out into an isolated area of the country and try to live off the grid.  Things never work out the way they're planned, because people are sinful and imperfect and any society, cult, monastery, commune, or utopia we try to build always ends up ruined by our own problems.
            Then there were the Pharisees, which we read about a lot in the New Testament.  They chose to remain in society, but meticulously tried to follow the Law perfectly and taught others to do the same.  The Pharisees were so passionate about the Law they wrote detailed instructions about all of the 613 laws, so that they would know exactly what was expected.  So for instance, one very simple law in the Ten Commandments says, "Remember to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy."  But the Pharisees wanted to know exactly how to do that.  How far can you walk before it's considered work?  What if you are carrying a backpack, does that make it work?  How much weight would be allowable.  And so for instance, they said you could only walk about a half a mile; anything beyond that is work.  And I believe I read somewhere that you could only have so many tacks in your sandals to hold them together because too many tacks would make the load you carry as you walk too heavy and it would be considered work!  Does that sound ridiculous?  Well, I can tell you from experience, if you go to a hotel in Jerusalem today on the Sabbath Day and you get in an elevator, it is automatically programed to stop on every floor.  Why?  Because to push the button for the floor you want to get off at is considered work and is prohibited on the Sabbath Day!
            You can get so busy trying to following all these laws, you are no longer free to follow God!  And that's what the Apostle Paul found.  He started out as a Pharisee who devoted his entire life to following God's Law perfectly.  However, he never found any peace in it.  It actually lead him away from God.  He started persecuting Christians, having them arrested and killed, all in the name of his religion.   Until, one day, God appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus in a blinding light and said, "Why are you persecuting me?"  And Paul replied, "Who are you Lord?" He didn't even know who God was anymore, because of all his religious rules.  So Paul found God again.  And that's why he said in Galatians 2:19, “[I] stopped trying to meet all [the Law's] requirements—so that I might live for God.”
            Well, most of us today are not Pharisees and we don't live in Bible times.  However, there is a false religion in our day that says:  “If I’m a good person, I’ll go to heaven.” The same school of thought believes“If I am good, God will reward me.”  Sometimes this religious belief is expressed in the form of a troubling question.  We ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  But what the Law shows us is there are no good people.  "All have sinned, all fall short of God's glorious standard."  (Romans 3:23)
            It is incredibly ignorant to think we can be good enough to earn God's blessings.  Our modern notions of what it means to be a “good person” is absurdly na├»ve.  Compare to purest person you know today to some of the holy people from the past.  Take the great protestant reformer, Martin Luther as an example.  Luther was a Roman Catholic monk.  He had dedicated his entire life to the service of God.  He would not marry or have any romantic relationships.  He gave up the priviledge of producing children and took a vow of poverty.  On a pilgrimage to the Vatican in Rome, he crawled on his hands and knees to express his humility and devotion to God.  Yet none of Luther's strenuous religious devotion helped.  Luther said he never felt remotely worthy of God's love.  His sin was ever before him, convicting him, making him feel shame and guilt, and condemning him to hell.  And the Apostle Paul, the herald of freedom in Galatians, was at one time a Pharisee who said no one surpassed him in holiness and dedication to God's Law.  However, Paul was driven to madness by his guilt and shame, because the Law always condemned him.  Thankfully, both Luther and Paul finally woke up and realized you can't do anything to earn salvation; it is a free gift of God we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  Do you know anyone who is as holy as men like Luther or the Apostle Paul?
            Isaiah 64:6 says, "When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags."  And James 2:10 says, "For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws."  Martin Luther said, "If my sin was so great and terrible that it required the crucifixion of the Son of God, how can I ever think that following the Law can have any affect whatsoever on my salvation or in winning God's approval?” 
            It can't.  Remember, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsamene, just before his arrest and crucifixion, "Father, if there is any other way to do this, let this cup of suffering pass from me. However, not my will, but Your will be done."  And the cup didn't pass from Jesus.  He was crucified, because it was the only way to pay the price of our freedom from sin and death.

Receive God's Christmas Gift
            That's why it's so glorious and joyous that Jesus was born as a baby? No wonder we sing Christmas carols like – “Joy to the World!  The Lord Has Come!  Let Earth Receive Her King!”  Jesus didn’t come as a God (He was God, but he was born as a man).  He lived life as one of us and faced all the same trials and temptations and suffered like we suffer.  He knows our struggle.  He lived as one of us, but did not sin.  He perfectly fulfilled the Law that we couldn’t.  He died on the cross as the atonement for our sins.  His blood paid the penalty for our sin and set us free from the consequences of our sin.  His resurrection from the grave heralds the hope we have in Christ—that we are set free from sin and death and can rise to new life if we trust in Christ.  
            So now, we are made right with God through Christ—not by trying to be good enough.  God loved us so much He sent His Son to save us!  How much more could God possibly do to prove He loves us?  He has already done everything! 
            Now it is up to you.  All you have to do is accept it—receive this incredible Christmas gift God gave to you.  Will you? Will you accept God’s Christmas gift to you?