2 Corinthians 5:2-5
Thought for Meditation:
When I lose my car keys or my wife loses a contact lens, “operation recover” immediately goes into effect. I have taken apart traps in bathroom sink drains, returned to restaurants, and even dismantled our living room furniture.
On the other hand, when I lose a blue sock deserving retirement anyway, I don’t fret until I find it. The value of lost items determines the intensity of my search-and-rescue efforts.
Steven D. Mathewson, Quoted in Leadership Journal, Spring 2000, p97.
How much do we value our family, friends and neighbors who are “lost,” who don’t know Jesus Christ? How much do we value God’s love, and the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ?
One morning a teenage boy walked into his dad’s bedroom and asked if he could borrow some of his clothes to wear to school. Dad puffed out his chest a little bit, and thought, “Finally. My son’s going to have a little class when he goes to school. He wants to look better than his usual jeans and t-shirt.” He said to his son, “Sure. What’s the occasion?” His son replied, “Today is the day everyone is supposed to dress up as a nerd!”
How many of you received clothes for Christmas? I’m not talking socks or underwear. I’m talking about something you can show off. Is anyone wearing your new clothes? (Ask / Explain). This sweater is one my Mom made for me a couple of years ago for Christmas. I also got this wonderful new shirt and tie.
Let’s be honest. We know that clothes don’t define a person. A wonderful person might be wearing rags and someone with a great wardrobe might be a terrible person. However, what you wear has an impact on your attitude and your emotions. There is something about dressing up, especially with new clothes, that makes you feel good about yourself. You stand up a little straighter and feel a little better. What I would like to suggest this morning is that there is a biblical basis for having a positive attitude about new clothes. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this.
Throughout the New Testament salvation is sometimes associated with new clothes. In Mark 5 there is a story of the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. He terrified the people of the area. He ran around naked and lived out among the tombs. Jesus came to him and healed him. When the people came out to see what happened Mark tells us that this man was wearing clothes.
In Galatians 3 Paul says that those who are baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. In the early church, when a person was baptized, he or she was given new clothes, a brand new white robe to symbolize their salvation.
In Revelation 3 Jesus challenges the church in Laodicea. That was the church that was neither hot nor cold. They were lukewarm and Jesus wanted to spit them out of his mouth. In his words to the church he invited them to get from him “white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness” (Revelation 3:18b).
In our passage from 2 Corinthians Paul talks about the longing that is part of all of our lives, the longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. We don’t want to be found naked. Instead we long to be clothed with the salvation that comes from Christ.
These ideas about new clothes have their roots in the Old Testament. Think back to Genesis 3, the story of the first sin. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and one of the things they realize is that they are naked. In their shame they hide from God. God finds them and there are consequences for their sin. But notice what happens at the end of the story. “The Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) In an act of grace God gave them new clothes.
The prophet Zechariah had a vision. In this vision Joshua, the high priest, was standing before an angel of the Lord. Satan is there accusing Joshua. Listen to what happens. “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, , ‘See, I have taken your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’” (Zechariah 3:3-4). Then they put new clothes on Joshua as a sign of God’s grace.
The metaphor of salvation being described in terms of new clothes is best seen in our passage from Isaiah. Isaiah rejoices in the Lord, and then he says why. “God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Isaiah is very clear that God is the source of his salvation. Look at verse 11. “…the Lord God will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” (Isaiah 61:11). Isaiah didn’t make the clothes for himself. He didn’t earn the money to buy them. They are a gift from God. God has given us new clothes. God is the source of our salvation. As Christians, we believe that salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ. In and through Jesus God has clothed us with salvation and righteousness.
There are at least two consequences that follow. First, we are called to rejoice. We are called to join Isaiah in saying “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” (Isaiah 61:10) I love the way it’s worded in The Message: “I will sing for joy in God, explode in praise from deep in my soul!” Because we have been clothed with salvation in Jesus Christ, we are called to overflow with joy.
Karl Barth is considered to be one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He had a brilliant mind and wrote massive amounts of books. His writings are complex and often difficult to understand. Yet underneath it there is a joy and playfulness in Barth’s life and in his writings. He once said, “The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science.”
Barth lived in Basel, Switzerland. One day he was riding a bus in the city and a man got on the bus and sat next to Barth. He was obviously a tourist. Barth struck up a conversation with him. “You’re a visitor here, aren’t you? What do you want to see in our city?” The man replied, “I would like to see the great theologian, Karl Barth. Do you know him?” Barth said, “Oh, yes. I shave him every morning.” The man got off the bus, satisfied that he had met Barth’s barber.
Have you ever noticed how many Christmas songs have to do with joy? (Name That Tune) “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Joyful all ye nations rise…” “Good Christian friends rejoice with heart, and soul, and voice;” The music is joyful and uplifting, because Christmas is a time for joy. The joy is part of the message that the angels first brought to the shepherds. “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)
As I was thinking about Christmas carols and joy, I thought of one other song we usually sing at Christmas time. It is not a Christmas song, but an Advent carol. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” The song is in a minor key. It’s dark and somber. It acknowledges that we are captives, that we live in exile. It talks of gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows. But even in the midst of that we are called to “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” We are to rejoice even in a minor key, even when life is a struggle and our hearts are filled with sadness and pain. We can do that because of Emmanuel. God is with us and through Jesus we have been clothed with righteousness and salvation.
There is a second thought I’d like to lift out of our passage from Isaiah. This passage is one of the lectionary readings for the Sunday after Christmas. I have no idea who picked these verses from Isaiah, but it is an unusual choice. Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 62 are generally considered two separate passages. Whoever put the chapters in the Bible thought there was a natural break after verse 11 of chapter 61. Most commentaries follow the same pattern. However, the first few verses of chapter 62 have a message that fits wonderfully with chapter 61. Not only are we called to rejoice in our salvation. We are also to share our joy and invite others to experience the same joy that comes from having new clothes, from having salvation in Jesus Christ.
Isaiah is thankful for his new clothes of salvation. He rejoices, but he also has a passion to make sure that others know that same salvation and righteousness. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch” (Isaiah 62:1). Until the people of Jerusalem, the people of Israel, know the salvation of God, Isaiah will do everything he can to tell them about God’s love and mercy. He dedicates his life to proclaiming the good news.
This passage was probably written at a time when the Israelites were struggling. The people of Israel thought that God had abandoned them. Their identity was that they were Deserted by God. They were Desolate. Those were their names. I wonder, with all that has gone on here at Sharon in the last couple of years, if anyone ever felt that way about God. “God has forgotten us or rejected us?” If you have ever felt that way you need to hear this good news.
God has given Israel, and us, new names – Hephzibah which mean My Delight Is in Her, and Beulah which means Married. I love the end of verse 4 “The Lord will take delight in you.” Isn’t that an amazing idea. God delights in you. Just as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, God rejoices over us, and over all the people of the world. Yet the truth is, many people still feel forsaken and desolate. Not everyone knows God’s love. Not everyone knows that God delights in them. Isaiah dedicates his life to telling others the good news of God’s love. We are invited to have the same passion so that all people may know God’s salvation and rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Who is it in your life that you have a passion for them to know God’s love and salvation? Maybe it’s your children. Maybe it’s people who have no faith at all, who don’t know anything about Jesus. That might be people in a village in Papua New Guinea. It might also include your next door neighbor. Don’t assume that because people live in Pittsburgh, or anywhere else in the United States, that they know who Jesus is or anything about Christianity. There are thousands of people right here in our community, who know absolutely nothing about Jesus or what it means to be a Christian.
Let me be blunt here. What I’m talking about is that nasty word – evangelism. We’re Presbyterians. We don’t like evangelism and we’re not very good at it. I’m not going to go into a full explanation of evangelism, but let me offer you three simple ideas about evangelism. First, when you think of someone needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, pray for that person. Ask God to open that person’s heart and mind to the message of Jesus. How that person responds is not your responsibility. It is God’s. So pray. Second, tell that person what Jesus means to you and how Jesus has worked in your life. Some people are afraid to do eveangelism because they are afraid they might not have all the answers. You don’t have to know everything, but you can know how Jesus has made a difference in your life. Third, invite that person to church. The church is the body of Christ. What better place to learn about Jesus than right here.
There was a little girl who was going to be in her first Christmas Pageant. She was so excited about it. After the first rehearsal she told her mom that she got to wear her bathrobe to church and that she had the most important part in the whole story. Mom thought that since she was so young she probably wouldn’t have the role of Mary, so she asked. “What part did you get?” “I’m the Christmas star!” she exclaimed proudly. Mom didn’t want to squelch her enthusiasm, but she didn’t understand why she thought that being the star was so important. “Why do you say that is the main part?” The little girl said “I get to show everybody how to find Jesus.”
My friends, we are invited to rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ, to rejoice in our new clothes of salvation. We are also, like the little girl who was the star, to help others find Jesus.
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Jesus Comes to Bring Us Joy
One Christmas Eve, in my church out in Colorado, I got up to welcome people and out of habit said “Good morning.” Without batting an eye, the whole congregation said right back to me, “Good morning.” We are so used to worship on Sunday morning that it is hard to get out of the habit.
One congregation had a regular evening worship service. They had an announcement in their Sunday morning bulletin about their evening service. “At the evening service tonight the sermon topic will be, ‘What is hell like?’ Come early and listen to the choir.” I’m glad that we don’t have that problem here. That was actually printed in the bulletin. Here are a few other bulletin bloopers I’ve collected.
- Announcement in the church bulletin for a National PRAYER & FASTING Conference: "The cost for attending the Fasting and Prayer conference includes meals."
- Thursday at 5:00 pm there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All ladies wishing to be "Little Mothers" will meet with the pastor in his study.
- For those who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
- Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands.
A pastor received a thank-you note from a newlywed couple in his congregation. “Dear Pastor, I want to thank you for performing our marriage ceremony. It was beautiful the way you brought my happiness to a conclusion.”
Of course, pastors tend to get in as much trouble as anyone. One time a pastor was giving a children’s sermon and talking about Bethlehem. He told the kids “Bethlehem was a small town. In fact it was so small, I’ll bet they didn’t even have a Pizza Hut.” One young lad responded, “Maybe that had a Little Caesar’s.”
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he wrote about our unalienable rights. Do you remember what they are? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How many of us are really happy? Are our lives are overflowing with joy? We have moments when we laugh, times when we feel a bit of happiness. Other times we put on a happy face and pretend that everything is fine, even though we may be miserable inside, or just bored.
The good news of Christmas is that Jesus came 2000 years ago, is with us today, and will come again in the future, to bring us joy. Do you remember what the angel said to the shepherds when he announced the birth of Jesus? “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). The night before Jesus was arrested he was in the upper room teaching the disciples. He told them, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). In Philippians Paul invites us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the Bible and joy, I think of the passages I just read from the New Testament. Other than in the Psalms I don’t think of joy as a theme in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. Yet our passage from Zephaniah is all about joy. Most of Zephaniah is about the approaching judgment of God. It talks about the day of the Lord, what we as Christians call the return of Christ, when the world will end and God will punish people for their sins. These last verses are different. The subtitle in my Bible is “A Song Of Joy.” Zephaniah calls us to “rejoice and exult with all your heart.” He gives us four reasons why we can rejoice.
First, we can rejoice because God has forgiven our sin. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you” (Zeph. 3:15a). Every Sunday, in some form or another, we confess our sin. The liturgists usually lead that part of the service. When I send them information about the various parts of the service they will lead it includes some different ways that they can introduce the prayer of confession. By far, the most common introduction to confession that liturgists choose is this:
The best that you can do will never deserve God’s love
The worst that you can do will never keep God from loving you and forgiving you.
All of us have sinned and need God’s forgiveness. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we have been forgiven and our sins removed. Through his life, death and resurrection, our relationship with God restored. That is why we sing:
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
We have joy because we are forgiven.
The second reason we can rejoice is because God has defeated our enemies. “He has turned away your enemies” (Zeph. 3:15b). Zephaniah describes God as “a warrior who gives victory” (Zeph. 3:17b). In verse 19 God says “I will deal with all your oppressors.” For Zephaniah the enemies were obvious. There were foreign countries threatening Israel. Our enemies may not be so obvious, but they are just as real.
I could get myself in trouble by naming specific groups or people as enemies. Some people we might agree on. Others, probably we wouldn’t. Anything that draw us away from God’s desire for our lives is our enemy. Anyone who destroys life is an enemy, which means that death is our ultimate enemy. We’ve had two members of this church experience the death of loved ones in the past week. The good news is that through Jesus our enemies have been defeated, even death. Therefore we can rejoice.
The third reason we can rejoice is because God is present with us. “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zeph. 3:15c). “The Lord, your God, is in your midst” (Zeph. 3:17a). That is what Christmas is all about – Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
There is a fable that comes out of India, about a tiger cub who lost its mother and was adopted by a family of goats. The goats raised this tiger to live like a goat. He spoke their language and ate their food. The tiger grew up thinking he was a funny-looking goat. One day a king tiger appeared and all the other goats ran away. This young tiger was left alone, afraid but not afraid. The king tiger asked him what he was doing, living like these goats. All the tiger cub could do was bleat – “baaa.” The king tiger picked up the cub and carried him to a pool, where the cub could see his own image and the image of the king tiger. Finally, the young tiger realized who he was and let out an exultant roar.
It was the presence of king tiger that enabled the cub to realize his true identity. It is the presence of Jesus Christ, our King, that enables us to discover who we really are. We are made in the image of God. We are God’s beloved children. That is our identity. Through sin our identity has been distorted, maybe even lost. Jesus, through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, through his presence in our life, enables us to realize who we are and become the people that we were created to be.
Zephaniah gives us a fourth reason to rejoice. Not only is God present with us, He likes us. In fact, God loves us. Verse 17, “He will rejoice over you with gladness… he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Several small groups here have been reading through Max Lucado’s book, “The Applause of Heaven.” That was actually the first Lucado book I ever read. Tanya gave it to me for Christmas 22 years ago. Let me read to you a few sentences from the introduction:
Certain things about God are easy to imagine. I can imagine him creating the world and suspending the stars. I can envision him as almighty, all-powerful and in control. I can fathom a God who knows me, who made me, and I can even fathom a God who hears me. But a God who is in love with me? A God who is crazy for me? A God who cheers for me? That's hard to imagine.
Friends, God is passionately in love with you. God thinks of you and rejoices! He exults!
I have in my wallet 5 pictures. Four of them are pictures pictures of the four most important people in my life: Tanya, Laura, Brian, and Alli. I carry their pictures so that I can show them off to anyone who asks. I carry their pictures because I am madly in love with them.
God has your picture in his wallet, and he shows off your picture to the angels. “Look, here is Terri. Not only is she a fabulous singer and wonderful in working with children, she servant’s heart. Here’s Rob. He doesn’t like getting attention but let me tell you, he works as hard as anybody around that church. Here is Heather, she does an amazing job of helping people get to know each other. Here’s Jen. She makes the best sugar pecans and has a great sense of humor. Here’s Joe, and Jan, and Pete…” God loves you. God exults over you.
Friends, our lives can be filled with joy when we remember that God has forgiven us and destroyed our enemies. We can be filled with joy when we remember that God is present with us and is passionately in love with us. One last story for you.
A cowboy rode into town and stopped at a saloon for a drink. Unfortunately, the locals had a habit of picking on strangers, which he was. When he finished his drink, he went outside and saw that his horse was gone. He walked back into the bar, flipped his gun into the air, caught it above his head without even looking and fired a shot into the ceiling. WHICH ONE OF YOU SIDEWINDERS STOLE MY HOSS?" No one answered. "ALRIGHT, I'M GONNA HAVE ANOTHA BEER, AND IF MY HOSS AIN'T BACK OUTSIDE BY THE TIME I FINNISH, I’M GONNA DO WHAT I DUN IN TEXAS! AND I DON'T LIKE HAVE TO DO WHAT I DUN IN TEXAS!" He sat down and ordered another beer. When he finished it he walked outside, and his horse was back! He saddled-up and started to ride out of town. The bartender wandered out of the bar and asked, "Say partner, before you go... what happened in Texas?" The cowboy turned back and said, "I had to walk home."
One last laugh to remind us of the never-ending joy we have through Jesus. He came into our world 2000 years ago. He is present with us today and at some point in the future will come again, so that we might have joy. “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I will say, rejoice.”
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Jesus Comes... To Those Who Are On A Journey
Thought for Meditation:
When spirituality is viewed as a journey, however, the way to spiritual wholeness is seen to lie in an increasingly faithful response to the One whose purpose shapes our path, whose grace redeems our detours, whose power liberates us from crippling bondages of the prior journey and whose transforming presence meets us at each turn in the road.
Robert Mulholland Invitation to a Journey p12
Jesus Comes... To Those Who Are On A Journey
I know that some people have already left for the Christmas holiday, but I’m curious – how many of you will be traveling during the next week or so, flying somewhere or driving more than 60 miles, to celebrate Christmas with family or friends? I certainly wish all of you a wonderful journey, and pray that you will come back safely. Whether or not you are traveling over the holidays, let me suggest that all of us are on a journey. And the good news of Christmas is that Jesus comes to those who are on a journey of faith.
It had been a long day and Abraham was tired. He’d been out in the fields all day, came home long enough to grab a bite to eat, kiss Sarah good-by, and get to the town council meeting. The meeting was uneventful, but long. When Abraham got home he got a bowl of ice-cream, sat down in his Lazy-Boy, and turned on the TV to watch Monday Night football. There was some static on the TV. After a few minutes the picture went out, though Abraham could still hear a voice speaking. He flipped through the channels, wiggled the cable, but nothing seemed to work. Then he realized that the voice from the TV was speaking to him.
“Abraham, this is God.” “Yeah, well I want Comcast, not God.” “Abraham, I want you to pack up everything you’ve got, leave your family and your home and the land where you live. I want you to go to a new land which I will show you. I will bless you there and make you a great nation.”
Abraham didn’t get much sleep that night. The next morning he and Sarah packed as much of their stuff as they could fit into their SUV, and took off. They left, just like that. They started a journey that would take them all over the Middle East and even down to Egypt. As verse 9 says, “Abraham journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.”
Joseph and his family had lived in Nazareth for several generations. They were pillars of the community and had a well-established business. Joseph was engaged to Mary, who was pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. The emperor Augustus had ordered that a census be taken. Since Joseph’s ancestors were originally from Bethlehem he had to go back there to be registered. Joseph and Mary were forced to leave their home, their business, their friends, everything they knew, and journey back to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is about 70 miles south of Nazareth. Remember, there were no cars or trains. They either had to walk or ride a donkey. Those of you who have been pregnant, which excludes at least half of us, imagine what it would be like being 7 or 8 months pregnant, and walking from here to Uniontown, or to Somerset. I don’t imagine that it was an easy trip. But it began a journey for Joseph and Mary.
The Bible is filled with stories of people who are on journeys. The Exodus is the story of Moses leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt and through the wilderness. The Israelites are sent into exile in Babylon and then they journey back to the Promised Land again. The Wise Men journey from the east to see the Messiah. We’ll look at their story in a couple of weeks. When Jesus calls people what does he say? “Follow me.” He leads them on the journey of faith. After the death and resurrection of Jesus the apostles journey throughout the world, spreading the good news of Jesus.
Journey is one of the best metaphors of what it means to be a Christian. God’s people are constantly on a journey. What I’d like to do this morning is show you three ways that the Christian life is like a journey. Then I want to share with you the wonderful promise that God gives us for our journey.
First of all, every journey takes preparation. If you want to go visit friends who live at 41 Cherry Lane in Memphis, TN, a map or a GPS would be very helpful. You might want to make sure your car is working well. There is nothing like having car trouble when you are on a trip. You’ll need to pack your suitcase; clothes, toothbrush and whatever else you need. You might need to go to the bank to get some money for the trip. There are details that go into preparing for a journey.
The Christian journey also needs preparation. What is the ultimate destiny of the Christian journey? What do you need to help you reach that goal? Is there any baggage that weighs you down, things you need to get rid of for the journey? Who will you travel with on the journey? What will it cost you? Do you remember the parable that Jesus told about the builders who didn’t have enough money to finish the tower they were working on. The were ridiculed because they hadn’t prepared well enough and counted the cost. Jesus tells us to count the cost of discipleship, to prepare, before we begin the journey of faith.
Now, the fact that you are here this morning suggests that you are probably already on the journey. Here is what I would like to suggest; at some point in time you might want to to pause, and evaluate your journey. How is your journey going? Are there changes you need to make? What do you need to do to prepare for the next part of your journey?
Second, on any journey there are likely to be detours and unexpected problems. Most of you know that I live in Plum, on the other side of the county. I know how to drive around the eastern suburbs fairly well. Since I started at Sharon I’ve been learning whole new areas. One time I was trying to head home and avoid the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. I crossed over the river and tried to make my way up to I279 and then to 28 heading north up to Oakmont. It was cloudy day and getting dark. I turned on one road started driving. After 5-10 minutes I hadn’t seen the next road I was supposed to turn on. I looked at the compass in my car and realized that I was going in the wrong direction! Western PA isn’t very helpful with street signs and even if you have the correct directions and are on the right street, there is always a good chance that you hit a detour around road construction. That is simply part of the experience of driving in this area.
The journey of the Christian life is very similar. We don’t always end up on the easiest or most direct route to our destination. Sometimes that is because we have made a mistake and taken a wrong turn. We follow directions we thought were God’s, but were actually our own desires. We sin and miss the road God wants us to follow. Other times God plans detours for us, and uses those detours and struggles to help us grow in our faith. God puts us on a lonely, two-lane highway rather than a busy Interstate, or tells us to take a gravel road filled with pot-holes. Sometimes the Christian journey is a beautiful paved road that takes us directly to our next stop. Other times the Christian journey is filled with detours, struggles and wrong turns.
There is a third way that the Christian life is like a journey – we have not yet arrived at our destination. Tomorrow Alli and I are planning to go see the last Hobbit movie. I really like Tolkien’s stories. They are wonderful adventure stories, filled with all sorts of struggles and mishaps. Part of what makes them so good is that they portray life as a journey that never ends. Even when the Hobbit finishes, there is unfinished business that needs to be resolved in The Lord of the Rings. Even when the Lord of the Rings ends there is still unfinished business. Tolkien never wrote more, but the journey continues. Life is a journey that never ends.
To be a Christian means that we have not yet arrived. We haven’t yet reached the ultimate goal which comes only after we die. Since we are still on a journey we need to keep growing in our faith. There is more to learn, about ourselves and about God, more to learn about our relationships to other people and how we should live.
One of the great problems in the church of our time, at least in the United States, is that too many Christians have gotten off the journey and stopped growing. People went to Sunday school as children, up through 6th grade or maybe up to 10th or 11th grade. Then they stop going to Sunday school. I’m not sure where we got the idea that Sunday school is for children and not for adults, but that is one of the great tragedies in the church. One of the phrases I hear often in this part of the country, and I think it comes out of a Roman Catholic background, is that students “make confirmation.” That terminology implies that when you finish confirmation, in 8th or 9th grade, you have made it. You are done. Whether you joined the church through confirmation or through a conversion that is just one step on a journey that continues as long as you are alive. We never get to the point where we can say “I’ve learned enough I don’t need anything more.” The Christian life involves constantly learning and growing.
The Christian journey is more than just what you know, the knowledge you gain from reading the Bible or other books and participating in Sunday school or small groups. It includes developing and using your gifts for ministry, maybe even learning new gifts. It includes growing in our love for other people and our ability to forgive those who hurt us. It involves trusting God more and more as we face the different struggles that come into our lives. It involves learning how to listen for God’s word in your life and developing your relationship with Jesus. We are all on a journey of moving toward the goal of a perfect relationship with God. We are on a journey that in this world never ends.
Finally, here is the promise we need as we journey through life – we are not alone. The promise is that Jesus comes to those who are on a journey. In Genesis, God appears to Abraham several times, not only to call him to follow but also to protect him and to guide him. When Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem God came to them, in the form of Jesus who is Emmanuel, God with us. It is an astounding, incomprehensible idea – this helpless little baby is the Lord of the universe, God with us.
Earl Palmer is a Presbyterian pastor. He tells the story of the time he went on a journey to the Philippines. He flew into a small town where someone was supposed to meet him and drive him to a village out in the middle of the jungle. The person who was supposed to meet him couldn’t be there but had left a 4-wheel-drive jeep and detailed instructions with another man. The instructions involved driving through the jungle on a dirt road, crossing a river at a point where it was low enough to cross and through all sorts of other hazards. It was a 6-8 hour trip. As Earl heard these directions he began to panic. Finally, the man who was giving him the instructions said, “What the heck. I know where it is. I’ll drive you there!” He dropped what he was doing and drove Earl all the way to the village where he was going.
Which would you rather have, detailed instructions how to get someplace or someone to go with you on your journey, to show you the way? God’s promise to us is that as we journey through life we are not alone. God is always with us. Jesus comes to those who are on a journey.
Let us pray: Jesus, you left behind your home in heaven, left your eternal glory, and came down to this earth. You lived among us, died for us, and returned to heaven. Thank you that as we journey through this life you are with us. Help us, as we journey, to follow you and trust in your abiding presence. Amen.
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Jesus Comes to Save Us
by Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Sacrifice is at the center of the work of salvation. Sacrifice is God’s way of dealing with what is wrong in history, which is to say, what is wrong with us, individually and collectively. it is God’s way of dealing with sin.
Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays 10000 Places
Jesus Comes to Save Us
Arnold Palmer was invited to Saudi Arabia. He played golf with the royal family, gave a few golf lessons and spoke at a banquet. The Royal family was captivated with Arnie’s charm. Before he left he visited with the king, who wanted to give Arnie a gift. Arnie said, “You don’t need to do that. You paid for my way over here. You’ve been such wonderful hosts. You don’t need to give me anything.” But the king insisted. “At least let me give you a golf club.” Arnie thought that was fine. Golf club companies sent him clubs all the time, asking him to try them out. He figured that he could frame the club and put it on a wall someplace. A few weeks after her returned home Arnie got a package from the king. It was not a golf club that you could hit a ball with or hang on a wall. It was the title to a country club that included a golf course. The gift that Arnold Palmer received was far greater than he ever expected.
I believe that is a parable for Christmas. This is the time we remember that Jesus is the gift that God has given to us, a gift far greater than our wildest imagination. The angel tells Joseph to name his son Jesus because the name Jesus means God saves. In Jesus God gives to us the gift of salvation.
We know that Jesus is our savior and that salvation is at the center of the Christian message. We all probably have an idea of what salvation is, but if we asked ten people to define salvation we would probably end up with twenty answers. What I’d like to do this morning is not to try to give you a definition of salvation, but to share with you three reflections about salvation, three different ways to understand what salvation is.
First, salvation means that our sins are forgiven. As the angel said to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She is going to have a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sin.”
It doesn’t take too much to convince us of the reality of sin. There is enough evil in our world that it would be hard to deny sin. Wars, terrorism, corruption, injustice. The real danger in thinking about sin is assuming that it is “out there,” someplace else. The real problem of sin is not out there, but in our own lives.
In 1960 Adolf Eichmann was captured, taken to Israel and put on trial for his part in the Holocaust of World War II. The prosecutors brought former concentration camp survivors as witnesses against him. One witness was called Yehiel Dinur. He had survived the horrors of Auschwitz. As he entered the courtroom he looked at Eichmann through the bullet-proof glass. Here was the man who had murdered his friends and many other Jews. Here was the man who had overseen the torture and massacre of millions of people. The courtroom grew silent as the two men started at each other. Then something unexpected happened. Dinur began to cry. In fact, he sobbed.
Later, Yehiel Dinur was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace. “What happened in there. Were you overcome by hatred? Did the horrifying memories of Auschwitz devastate you? Were you overwhelmed by the evil on Eichmann’s face?” Dinur said no. He had expected Eichmann to be the personification of evil, yet when he looked at Eichmann he realized that he was an ordinary man. At that moment Dinur realized that sin and evil were a human condition. He knew that he was capable of doing the same thing. As he said, “Eichmann is in all of us.”
We have all sinned and turned our backs on God and on God’s people. Whether we have committed terrible crimes like Eichmann or just held a grudge and refused to forgive someone, we have all sinned. Whether we have committed acts of terrorism or ignored the needs of people who were hungry or homeless, we all need forgiveness. The good news is that Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins. Salvation means that we are forgiven!
Second, salvation means that God overcomes the brokenness of our lives. I love the way Isaiah describes the salvation that God brings us; those who are blind will see, the deaf will hear, those who are crippled will leap like a deer, those who can’t talk will shout and sing for joy.
Think about what Jesus did throughout his ministry. He taught and he preached, but he also healed people. A man had been crippled his whole life. He had to beg for a living. Jesus said, “Get up and walk.” A woman spent all of her money on doctors but she was still bleeding after twelve years. She touched Jesus’ robe and was healed. A widow was grieving the death of her only son, realizing that now she was alone in the world with no one to help her. Jesus brought her son back to life. Again and again Jesus heals the brokenness of our lives.
Craig Barnes talks about standing at the baggage carousel in an airport. People stand there watching these worn-out, beat-up bags go round and around and around. In some ways our lives are a lot like that. The worn-out, beat-up baggage from past hurts keeps showing up again and again and again. Maybe it’s the baggage that came from parents who weren’t perfect, or baggage from self-esteem issues, or baggage from people who have hurt us or times we have hurt ourselves, or baggage from other struggles that have overwhelmed us. The brokenness of our lives cycles in and out of our consciousness. It impacts who we are, what we do, and how we relate to each other. I love what Craig says about this baggage. “The hardest thing to leave behind in following Christ is not our many possessions, but the hurt and guilt we’ve collected as souvenirs from the places we’ve been. Periodically it’s necessary to get rid of the junk” (Leadership Journal, Fall 2003 p67).
The problem is that we can’t get rid of that baggage on our own. Every time we try to get rid of our baggage we throw it away and it lands on the carousel. At some point it cycles right back into our lives. Instead of trying to get rid of it ourselves we need to give it to Jesus. Jesus is the one who can and does save us from our brokenness. As Isaiah says, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those with fearful hearts ‘Be strong, do not fear.’ Here is your God… He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
There is a third idea about salvation I want to share with you. It is one of the central ideas of Christmas. Salvation means that we are not alone because God is always with us. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.” God doesn’t wait until we have our lives together or until we are good enough. God comes to us just as we are, with all of our sin and with all of our brokenness. We are not alone because God is with us.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist from the 20th century. He developed a theory about the hierarchy of needs. At the bottom, our basic need is physical. We need food, water, shelter, things like that. The next level of needs are about safety. Are we safe or do we have to worry about our jobs, or families, or our health. Most of us are fairly comfortable in these first two levels. I doubt that many of us worry about having enough food or water and we live in a relatively safe place. The next level is the one where many people in our society begin to struggle. It is the social level. It has to do with our need for love and friendship, for intimacy and belonging.
My guess is that most of us have issues at this level. One way this is lived out for many people is loneliness. Remember Jodie Foster, the actress. In 2013 she won a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award. In her acceptance speech she made this statement: “Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply, and to be not so very lonely.” Jodie Foster has all the outward signs of success, yet she struggles with loneliness. Henri Nouwen described the problem this way. He said that the cause of loneliness is the belief, that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used. The many small rejections of everyday – a sarcastic smile, a flippant remark, a brisk denial or a bitter silence – may all be quite innocent and hardly worth our attention if they did not constantly arouse our basic human fear of being left totally alone. Henri Nouwen , Reaching Out p26
My friends, Christmas is the message of Emmanuel – God with us. We are not alone. Salvation is the idea that our God values us so much, desires a relationship with us so much, that God left behind his eternal glory, and in the person of Jesus Christ came to live with us and for us. We are not alone because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee O Israel!”
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