Opening Prayer for the Pennsylvania State Senate

On Wednesday, September 24, 2014, I was privileged to offer the opening prayer on the floor of the Pennsylvania State Senate. This was a special day, as a resolution was passed, honoring the 280th Schwenkfelder Day of Remembrance. See http://schwenkfelderexilesociety.org/schwenkfelders-in-pennsylvania/.

The following is what I prayed:

“Our Father in heaven, we humbly come before Your throne, as You are the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe. We thank you for this day, as You have gathered these men and women to make important decisions concerning our commonwealth. We thank you for their gifts, abilities and education. As lawmakers of this great state, they serve the people of Pennsylvania and they serve You.

And yet, Lord, we understand that You are the ultimate Lawmaker. We are helpless without Your leading. Your word tells us in Proverbs 16:25 that “There is a way that seems right unto men, but in the end leads to death.” Keep us from acting in our own wisdom. May we operate with the wisdom that comes from You.

Help our laws to reflect Your law, found in sacred Scripture. Your word tells us in James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Give us wisdom and discernment to make choices that would glorify You and would be best for the people of this privileged state.

I pray this in the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Why Pray?

What keeps us from prayer? Busyness, pride, the feeling that we can take care of life on our own.

Maybe it is the newness of prayer. You’ve heard others pray and you’ve never done it that way before.

Boredom. You think prayer is boring. You don’t want to waste your time stopping and talking to a God that you don’t know that much about. Yet, if you were honest, you live as if you don’t need God.

What must one say in prayer? Sometimes it is just a sigh and the words: “Help me, Lord.” In the spring of 2010, I was lost on the streets of Athens, Greece without my passport and phone. To complicate matters, I did not know the language. My prayer was: “Lord Jesus, help me get back.” And He did!

Prayer is verbal reliance upon God. It is audible faith. If you were asked to give a prayer in our church service, it may be that you would think about what you would say; write it out, and maybe produce a rough draft and a finished product. Prayer can be long and elaborate or it can be short and sweet. It may be that you would need to Prayer is a means of relying on God. It can be defined as simply pouring your heart out before Him. Psalm 62:8: “Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him….”

Someone that knew of the importance of prayer was the Apostle Paul. Paul and his friends were afflicted. They feared for their lives. (verse 9) Their mission brought them into places and circumstances that were hostile. Adversity drove Paul to prayer. On one of his missionary journeys, his life was in danger. We are not sure what caused Paul so much affliction. We’re not sure what he was referring to. It might’ve been a disease. It might have been a situation like the riot in Ephesus mentioned in Acts 19.

A listing of some of his afflictions is given to us in 2 Corinthians 11:23, where we understand that he was flogged and beaten for his message. He was stoned; faced danger from the elements and being in the wild. His life was at the mercy of evil people. He suffered shipwreck and imprisonment. Paul would write from a cold Roman jail cell in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul saw prayer as a lifesaver to his circumstances. He also mentions fighting with wild beasts in 1 Corinthians 15:32.

Whatever it was that threatened his life, Paul knew that God rescued him. God was not finished with him yet. God preserved his life. So desperate was his attitude that he actually believed that God would raise him from the dead. Some scholars believe that he was quoting a Jewish verse, from what is known as the “Eighteen Benedictions.” “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for Thou makest the dead to live.”

What was for the purpose of these afflictions? So that he and his friends may rely on God, “who raises the dead.” (Verse 9). It was for humility, for conforming them to Christ, for removing the self-sufficiency in their lives. Paul was not too proud to request prayer in our passage. He identifies the power associated when God’s people pray in verse 10: “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” In a mysterious way, the prayers of the Corinthians worked in cooperation with the power of God to rescue Paul and his friends.

This in turn will lead to the blessing of many. Lots of things have happened through prayer. Diseases have been healed; people have been brought to safety; families have been restored; marriages have been reconciled; jobs have been found; lives have improved; people have been formed and shaped to be more like Christ; hardened individuals have been saved; lots of things! When you choose to avoid prayer, you lose out on seeing the hand of God move in your life. As the old hymn goes “Oh what peace we often forfeit; Oh what needless pain we bear; all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

Prayer does not automatically save a person from trouble. God saves us from trouble or preserves us in the midst of it. Paul would eventually give his life for the sake of the gospel. His life was appointed for suffering, as Jesus told Ananias in Acts 9:15: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

Paul would teach that prayer is an instrument in the hands of a loving heavenly father, to allow us to see, experience and join in what God is doing. Prayer is a means to see God move and the situation improve.

What have you got to lose? Are you willing to give up your pride; to put away your sense of inconvenience and rely on God for what troubles you? What stresses you? What is robbing you of your joy? Are you willing to give your life up and gain what only God can give you?

Many of you are aware of the horrific car accident on North Broad Street in the early morning hours of Monday; the accident that took the life of a young man in our area. The passenger was Andy Kham, son of Mhong and Samboun. We’ve had the privilege of ministering to the family during this past week. On Tuesday afternoon, Samboun’s testimony: “Our God is amazing!” All of his organs are in good condition. When I asked her what the church may do to help, she said: “All we need is prayer, at this time.” I’m pleased to report that Andy is making improvements every day. We thank God for His provision and mercy in the Kham’s lives.

Prayer reminds us that we are helpless without the Lord. James 4:14 asks: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” This is a message and an identity that is so contrary to our culture today. R.C. Sproul states: “We live in a time of practical atheism.” Not many of you would identify yourself as an atheist or an agnostic, but you live like it. You are prayerless, never relying on God. You tend to rely on yourself. If asked, you would say that you believe in God, but you live as if God does not exist, or you don’t need Him.

Here’s John Piper’s explanation: “Suppose you are totally paralyzed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you and do whatever you needed done. How could you glorify your friend if a stranger came to see you? Would you glorify his generosity and strength by trying to get out of bed and carry him?

No! You would say, “Friend, please come lift me up, and would you put a pillow behind me so I can look at my guest? And would you please put my glasses on for me? And so your visitor would learn from your requests that you are helpless and that your friend is strong and kind. You glorify your friend by needing him and asking him for help and counting on him.”

Why pray? To glorify God as the Supreme and loving Father, Savior and Sustainer in our lives. Jesus said: “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Piper ends with this definition: “Prayer is the open admission that without Christ we can do nothing. And prayer is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that He will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as wealthy.”

Rev. Dr. Tui and Margaret Shishak are examples of how God answers prayer. In 1973, Tui visited two of our former pastors, Rev. Dr. Bert Jacksteit and Rev. Dr. Jack Rothenberger, hoping to secure support for a Christian college among the tribal people of eastern India. Tui came to Central Schwenkfelder Church, trusting that God would provide. 40 years later, Patkai is a thriving Christian liberal arts college and looks to reach out to Burma. Patkai was born out of the prayers of Christians in Nagaland, Manipur and overseas. God answers prayer!

Jesus Knows Your Needs

When Jesus died on the cross, He experienced emotional, spiritual and physical pain. Consider the words found in John 19:28: “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

All of this happened as a result of the work being finished and His life as a fulfillment of Scripture. There were many times in Jesus’ life that He avoided death. At each time, the gospel writers would record something to the effect: “His time had not yet come….” For instance, in John 7:1, we are told that the Jews were seeking to kill him. He said to them: “My time is not yet here…Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come.”

Jesus’ life was a fulfillment of Scripture. Regardless of how we might view the Bible, Jesus saw that it as our chief authority deserving of reverence. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that not even the smallest portion of the law would pass away until all of it was fulfilled (Matthew 5:17).

Jesus viewed His suffering, His death and His resurrection as a glorious fulfillment of God’s plan. In contrast, we don’t look at suffering as God ordained. We think that life should be free of pain and adversity. But that just is not realistic, is it? He explained to two of his discouraged disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:25: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

And shortly before He died, Jesus said: “I am thirsty.” The fact that Jesus was parched tells us that He experienced so much of His humanity. His statement proves that Jesus was a real human being. He experienced betrayal, discouragement, and now his body is racked with pain; at the very end, He expresses thirst. Psalm 22:15 describes the level of thirst: My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth…. A potsherd is a broken piece of pottery, dried hard and good for nothing.

Because of the physical stress He was under, it most likely He was reaching a state of extreme dehydration. He probably had not had anything to drink in at least 24 hours. Water is needed for circulation and other bodily processes including respiration and converting food to energy. It has been shown that if you lose just 2.5% of your body weight from water loss, you will lose 25% of your efficiency. For a 175 pound man that is only about two quarts of water. This causes the heart to work harder and circulation of blood to be less efficient. Jesus had been flogged and crucified. All of this under a blazing Middle Eastern sun with the presence of extreme emotional stress. His statement reminds us of His extreme suffering on our behalf.

A mockery of satisfying His thirst, John 19: 29 tells us that they filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. Hyssop was a plant used for sprinkling blood or water in Jewish religious ceremonies. The way that they treated his thirst was cruel, sour, wine-vinegar would hardly quench a thirst; would make most of us sick.

But this is what Jesus went through for us. We call it Good Friday because those who believe realize that they cannot be good apart from that great sacrifice. Someone once said that all the world’s religions are marked by man’s efforts to reach out and grasp God, or the idea of God. It is Christianity that teaches that God reached out to man by sending Jesus to this earth to go to the cross on our behalf. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

This is why Christians for centuries have believed what the Nicene Creed has taught for centuries concerning Jesus: “…Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures….”

Have acknowledged your need for Him? He invites you today to receive His forgiveness, be reconciled to His Father and follow Him.

Are You a Unifying Church Member?

If there was one thing that the Lord wanted the church to be known for, it is the love that we show one another. Jesus said in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” One of the evidences of our love for each other is our willingness and ability to work together. When church members work together, great things happen. When church members don’t work together, the church is weaker.

This has been the pattern for a long time. Clear back in 1747, not far from where we’re sitting, there arose differences and disunity among the Moravian brethren, a group of local churches whose influence and missionary effort were widespread. Count Zinzendorf, with representative elders, arranged to hold a Conference at which the differing views on the subject of their controversy might be aired and discussed amicably among themselves. The leaders came—some from long distances to the place at which the Conference was to be held, arriving on the appointed day, each prepared to argue for the view he supported and confident that it would receive the acceptance of the majority. They arrived about the middle of a week.

In his wisdom Count Zinzendorf proposed that they should spend some time over the Word and in prayer, and suggested a Bible Reading. The book chosen was the first Epistle of John, and they spent the remaining days till the end of the week becoming familiar with the teachings of that letter, and learning that one of its main lessons was ‘love for all the brethren’. They agreed that on the first day of the week, like the disciples in the early Church, they should come together to break bread, and in so doing were reminded that they, being many, were ‘one Body!’ The reading and study of God’s Word and the fellowship at the Lord’s Supper had a beneficial effect on all, and the result was that when, on Monday morning, they commenced to examine the matters on which they differed, their differences and disputes were quickly settled, each bowing to the Word of God and thus helping to ‘keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’.

What if you were at that conference? What if I would’ve been there? Would I have been willing to sacrifice my wants and plans and rights, to see the body of Christ work together? How am I doing with Jesus’ commandment? Am I a unifier? Can people tell of my love for them?

This morning, I would like us to look at the idea of being a unifying member. Many Scriptures that paint church relationships are meant to be like a family. Psalm 133:1 states: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity!” We have to ask ourselves, What comes in the way of unity? One of those things which destroys it is gossip. The Bible calls this “idle talk.”

According to James 3:6, it is the tongue. Our speech can be wedge to drive people away from the Lord and one another. Or our words can be the glue that holds things together. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” 1 Peter 3:10 For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.”

By default, we are prone to tearing each other down. Take for instance, when we resort to name calling. It might make you feel better, but it does nothing to help the situation. It only hurts. Even if it is accurate, it does not mean that it is helpful. One wrong turn doesn’t necessarily deserve another. But it was not her place to call names. Such behavior did nothing to help the situation.

Rainer states: “You have a responsibility as a church member. You are to be a source of unity. You are never to be a divisive force. You are to love your fellow church members unconditionally. And while that doesn’t mean you agree with everyone all the time, it does mean you are willing to sacrifice your own preferences to keep unity in your church.

When Aaron Burr at the end of his long life, during which he had tasted the cup of honor and distinction and also drained the dregs of bitterness and humiliation, lay dying in a boarding house at Port Richmond, Staten Island, a friend who was waiting upon him in reporting to him some rumor commenced by saying, “They say.” At that Burr interrupted her and said, “My dear, never use that word. It has broken more hearts than any other.” Christian author Nicky Gumbel states: “The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” Rotary International has a 4-Way test that they recite every week: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIEND-SHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Another is selfish ambition or independence. When I attempt to advance my plan, my wants and my desires, regardless of the feelings and thoughts of others, then I hurt others and limit what can and should be done for Jesus. Think about the following comments:

• “This is my church, so you have to play the music just the way I want it.”
• “Look pastor, you need to remember who pays your salary.”
• “If you don’t do this program, I’ll withhold my check to the church.”
• “I have been a member of this church for over thirty years, so I have a right to get what I want.”
• I don’t pay good money to this church to listen to sermons that long.”

Later today, there will be two football games occurring. In one of those games, two of the greatest quarterbacks will play against each other. Between the two of them they’ve been in seven Super Bowls. Between the two of them, they have four rings. But they could never have accomplished their stellar careers without ten other men on the field. It’s not about the person. It’s about the team.

Think about those things which facilitate unity: Forgiveness, Love, Sharing/Cooperation, and Patience. I love the words of Paul in Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Rainer states: “Church membership is more than getting your name on a roll. It’s different from the perks and privileges you have when you are in a social club. To the contrary, church membership is about sacrificing, giving, and forgiving.”

If there was one thing that the Lord wanted the church to be known for, it is the love that we show one another. What are some ways that Jesus loved His disciples? For one, He was patient with them. Within the body of Christ, it is so easy to learn of each other’s faults and idiosyncrasies. Are we willing to bear with each other? Do we have it to overlook things that annoy us or get on each other’s nerves? Are we willing to come together for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom?

The second pledge in Rainer’s book addresses unity. “I will seek to be a source of unity in my church. I know there are no perfect pastors, staff, or other church members. But neither am I. I will not be a source of gossip or dissension. One of the greatest contributions I can make is to do all I can in God’s power to help keep the church in unity for the sake of the gospel.” Can you commit to that?

God’s acre is a small Moravian cemetery in Bethlehem. It is a bit different than other cemeteries. From the Lehigh Valley website: “The unusual appearance of God’s Acre is created by the sameness of the small, white marble grave markers. Each marker, about 18 by 24 inches, has been inscribed with minimal information; name, age and birthplace of the deceased. The markers lie flush to the ground in neat rows. The location of a burial was determined by the next open space, with no indication of the importance of the individual. This reflected the Moravian belief that everyone was equal.”

Are You a Gracious Church Member?

We all have tendencies to see the negative in our circumstances. Usually it involves inconveniences; never when life is at risk. When Robinson Crusoe was wrecked on his lonely isle he drew up in two columns what he called the evil and the good.

He was cast on a desolate island, but still alive—not drowned, as all his ship’s company were. He was divided from mankind and banished from human society, but he was not starving. He had no clothes, but he was in a hot climate where he didn’t need them. He was without means of defense, but he saw no wild beasts, such as he had seen on the coast of Africa.

He had no one to speak to, but God had sent the ship so near to the shore that he could get out of it all things necessary for his wants. So he concluded that there was not any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it. Even when things look bleak, there is reason to give thanks.

How should we understand church membership? And what kind of attitude should we have as church members? This morning, in our concluding message based on Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member, I want us to challenge in our way of thinking about church membership. And, if needed, let us change our way of thinking about our church and involvement in its ministry.

There are two different types of church members. There are those who expect perks, privileges and service. They know what they want and when they want it. They will stop at nothing to get it: complaining, writing letters (often without signing them), gossiping. When asked to do something, they begrudgingly accept with a bad attitude. Others get mad when asked. They are chronically discontent. They make life miserable for everyone around them. Ministry to them is a prison sentence. They expect the pastor or other leaders to do it all. Aren’t we glad that Jesus did not take that approach? Such members don’t last long.

Then there’s the second type of parishioner. They see church membership as a gift; something to be treasured. They see their testimony as depicted in Ephesians 2:1-10. That they were once dead in sin, living in disobedience, both outwardly and inwardly. Gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and objects of God’s wrath, as the rest of the world.

But God, who is rich in mercy, brought life to our souls. Poured out his grace in us, raised us up, expressed His kindness in us and drew us to Himself. This describes what theologians call regeneration. As a result, we repented and trusted in Jesus. When that happened we realized the full meaning of Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

We also understand that with becoming a Christian, many blessings are bestowed. Things like…

• Eternal life; life that is not just waiting for you after you die, but also true life that equips you to deal with what comes your way during your stay on earth; one that gives you joy and peace despite your circumstances.

• Adoption by the Heavenly Father; Regardless of your family background or level of dysfunction, when you come to faith in Christ, God the Father adopts you. You are His. Tied to this is the…

• Forgiveness of sin; that all of my mistakes and atrocities; those things public and private that would make me deserving of God’s wrath, Christ has taken away from me. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the Father looks at you, He does not see your sins and mistakes, He sees His Son, Jesus Christ. He loves you with an everlasting love. I love what Psalm 103:11 tells us: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

• The Holy Spirit as Comforter, Guide and Friend; Jesus said in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. The Holy Spirit has been given to you as a personal assistant who will never leave you. He is ever present to teach, guide, convict and help you.

• Becoming a part of the body of Christ, which is a family. When someone joins the church, we sing: “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love….” When you become a member, you become a part of a family to help you grow and mature as a Christian.

As a response to God’s goodness, we live for Christ and serve in the church and in the world, not from a sense of obligation, but as a way of worship and thanksgiving. Now, they look at the opportunity to serve as a way of giving. They take the Biblical “one anothers” seriously: to love one another, to encourage one another, to admonish one another, to build one another up.

The first sees the church as a club, an organization, and that they are a member, a share holder, that makes demands and says do this for me, or else! The latter sees the church as a family that welcomes a diversity of contributions. When we are thankful for something, we have less time and energy to be negative. What strikes me as odd is that one can exist quite awhile incognito. Sooner or later, it comes out. These rob themselves of a blessing. God has called you to a specific work. He’s given you gifts for service. For the building up of the body of Christ.

How does one become a member of a local church? What does it take to be a church member? But it goes beyond just what one believes or how one behaves. It takes, of course…

• A confession of sin and your need for Christ; You may know that our bylaws state: “The belief in God as the Heavenly Father, in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in the Holy Spirit as Sustainer is a prerequisite for membership in the Central Schwenkfelder Church.” Repentance from sin and faith in Christ is part of this.

• A class in which to learn what it means to be a disciple; The classic expression of belief in the Trinity has been the Apostles’ Creed. So it is that when you join the church, you are taught what these things mean, along with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, this is what members of Christ Church have been taught since the very beginning, a sort of curriculum for discipleship.

• A commitment to serve Christ and others; We must serve out of joy. As Rainer puts it: “Healthy church membership means you find your joy in being last, instead of being first.” As someone once asked: “How do you spell J-O-Y? Jesus first; others second; yourself last. It is not cheap; it will cost you. Commitment? Yes. Convenience? Yes. But it also births joy, blessing and satisfaction.

So the church should have an important place in your life, but the most important place in your life. It is a God-ordained family to provide, education, spiritual growth, moral and emotional support, and opportunities for service, as you learn how to be a disciple of and ambassador for Jesus Christ.

Back to that story about Crusoe’s list. We can always concentrate on the negative. But is that right? What will happen as a result?

Some ask the question: “Can I be a Christian without joining the church?”

Answer: Yes, it is as possible as being:

A student who will not go to school.
A soldier who will not join an army.
A citizen who does not pay taxes or vote.
A salesman with no customers.
An explorer with no base camp.
A seaman on a ship without a crew.
A business man on a deserted island.
An author without readers.
A tuba player without an orchestra.
A parent without a family.
A football player without a team.
A politician who is a hermit.
A scientist who does not share his findings.
A bee without a hive.

God loves His church. So as you reflect on your membership, or if you aspire to join a church, know that it takes a commitment to Jesus Christ and committing oneself to the people He died for.

Are You a Praying Church Member?

Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves.” This was a statement to equip the disciples for the work that they had ahead of them. It was to prepare them for what was ahead as they ministered in a world and culture that was not friendly to Christ. And our culture and world are returning to the same environment that characterized the first century. What is it like to lead the church of Jesus Christ in such an era?

Many ministers are failing, becoming discouraged. Listen to the following blog post: “I woke up this morning thinking that I might not have many more days left as pastor of my church. I am burned out and my wife is burned out. We are so weary of the critics. We have tried to be loving and kind to them, but it just gets worse. You can only take so much. My four kids have really been hurt through the years too. Even the “good guys” in my church expect more of me than I can handle. Our church has less than 175 in attendance, but I am expected to be in so many places at so many times every week. I am really tired. I feel both guilty and relieved writing these comments this morning. I feel guilty because I know I will be abandoning my call. I feel relieved because I finally have someone to talk to even though I am anonymous.”

What is the best thing you can do for your church leader? There are many things listed in Paul’s words found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” Notice the commands given concerning church leaders. We are to respect them, hold them in high regard and live in peace with one another. The qualifiers addressed to church leaders do not speak toward value or importance, but rather to responsibilities. As a pastor, I feel responsible for the faith and spirituality of my church’s members. I rejoice when they are thriving and concerned when they are not. I’m blessed when I see Christ in their lives and I’m burdened when it appears they have gotten off track. Why? Because pastors take their jobs seriously.

And because it is tough to lead God’s church. The devil knows our blind spots. He knows our temptations. He knows what our needs are and will do anything to deceive us to going after counterfeits and not relying on God.

I had a pianist at my former church in East Central Kansas. Her name is Annette Reed. My kids call her Grammy ‘Nette. She was Linda’s mentor for Women’s Bible studies. She and Tom were leaders at the First Christian Church of Pleasanton, KS. Annette prayed for me often. I was on her weekly prayer list. Because of her prayers, my preaching ministry prospered in Pleasanton. People grew in their love for God’s word. And we had a productive ministry there.

Today, I have a team of prayer warriors. They pray for me each week. I let them know how I want to be prayed for. They pray for many things concerning my family, my ministry, my parenting, my kids, my spiritual health, my sermons, etc.

What does prayer do? This is kind of a philosophy of prayer for our church and its leaders. Consider the following verses:

Prayer moves the hand of God: James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Prayer is used by God to show us His power and love.

Do you wonder what happens when God’s people pray? Listen to the words of Daniel 9, the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the prophet Daniel. Verse 20: “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the LORD my God for his holy hill– 21 while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. 23 As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed.” Did you get that? While Daniel was praying, the Lord commissioned Gabriel to go and speak to Daniel! I wonder what happens in the heavenlies when we pray!?

That’s not to say that God waits on us, nor can we manipulate Him in any way. But when His children by faith, ask in faith, He lovingly moves and acts on their behalf. And He willingly does so! Notice Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him. Consider the following as a short philosophy of prayer, as you pray for your church leaders:

Prayer holds back Satan and fights against our spiritual enemies: Job 1:10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.” Satan could not touch Job, without the consent of our sovereign God! The devil lays many traps. Our struggles are not with other human beings, but with the “Accuser of the Brethren.” All of this because, as Ephesians 6:12 tells us: “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Prayer advances God’s kingdom: 2 Thessalonians 3:1: “Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you….” In the same way, pray that my sermons may be everything that they are supposed to be. Pray that hearts and minds would be open to the gospel. Ask God to open doors for us as we minister to others. It is an incredible task that I love to do, but I also struggle with it from time to time. In Colossians 4:3, Paul asks that these Christians would pray, “…that God may open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned.” Paul was imprisoned for preaching the gospel, so he asks them to pray that God would open a door and give him more boldness.

Prayer encourages those for whom it is given. Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5: 25: “Brethren, pray for us.” And Hebrews 13:18 Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably.

There are around 400,000 pastors in America today. Take notice of the following statistics available from a number of various and reliable sources, compiled by the Schaeffer Institute:

• Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or
contention in their churches.

• Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.

• Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.

• Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no
other way of making a living.

• Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry
within the first five years.

• Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.

• Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

• Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.

Ministry is tough work. Rainer’s fourth pledge would be the best way you could bless me, Pastor Bill, Pastor Julian, Vern and Don. I repeat it here: “I will pray for my church leader every day. I understand that the church leader’s work is never ending. Their days are filled with numerous demands that bring emotional highs and lows. They must deal with critics. They must be good parents and spouses. Because my church leaders cannot do all things in their own power, I will pray for their strength and wisdom daily.”

How could you pray for us? Our spiritual lives; our holiness; our joy, our families; our wisdom and discernment.

And yet there are many times I’m greatly encouraged in the work of the gospel. Take for instance, the following email sent from one of our mothers: “I just wanted to tell you how thankful I am for you and Linda. I heard the Holy Spirit whisper to me and your sermon on Doing Good for Others further encouraged me to take the steps necessary to [help this family]. Thank you so much for all your sermons! [We] both enjoy them and find deep meaning and encouragement from them. I loved your sermon last week about children. What perspective on the importance of children and teaching them God’s Holy Word.” This made my day! May God bless those who support their leaders in ministry.

Am I a Serving Church Member?

Being a servant is not glamorous. It’s not our first choice. It is not for the faint of heart. I remember as a young man, I left my hometown for the University of Missouri. It was the Fall of 1988 and I was encouraged to pledge a fraternity. I had friends and family members that made that choice and I assumed that it was the thing to do to meet friends and adapt to college life. Boy was I wrong! Fraternity life was an entirely different culture than what I was used to. Not just for the bad reasons that you can imagine. But it did nothing for my sense of responsibility and the need to study.

But something I did learn in those few months was the value of service. You see, on weekends when there was a home football game, my pledge brothers and I had to clean the house from top to bottom. Polishing furniture, vacuuming carpets, mopping floors and cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms were just a few of the things we were asked to do. I didn’t realize it then, but that semester, I learned that serving others was important.
It wasn’t until later that I stumbled across Jesus’ words in Mark 9:33. There, Jesus puts the value on being a servant. In Mark 9, Jesus has forecasted His suffering and death, in verses 9, 12 and 31. This occurs after the Transfiguration and describes the ultimate act of service, His death on the cross. Then the disciples discuss among themselves who is the greatest. Verse 34 states: “But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.”

That brings up a good question: What makes a great person? The world argues money, personal accomplishments, possessions, etc. But Jesus defines it entirely different. He states: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.”’

The Apostle Paul learned this lesson. He had undergone this transformation from being served to serving. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader. He probably had a good and steady income. He was well known in the community. But then on the Road to Damascus, he meets the Lord Jesus Christ. And that turns his sense of worth and accomplishment completely on its ear! He would spend the rest of His life being a servant of Christ. The Lord told Ananias in Acts 9:15: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

In Philippians 2, Paul is writing from prison. What would make him happy? Their unity. And the key to that unity was the removal of self. This idea is summarized in Philippians 2: 4: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” So the key to unity is humility, selflessness, etc. In verse five, we’re instructed to be like Jesus. 2:5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

Here, we are told several things about Christ. In verse six, we learn that Jesus did not walk around proudly, boasting of His divinity. It was realized subtly through His miracles. Jesus described Himself as gentle and lowly in heart in Matthew 11:28. Other translations use the word: “meek.” He did not seek to carry Himself as a king, but He was the King of Kings! No, Jesus came to this earth as a servant. He became one of us. Jesus said in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Not only did Jesus carry Himself as a servant, but notice the way in which He died. Paul said that Jesus: “…humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” Did you get that? Jesus humbled Himself and died as a criminal. Who died on Roman crosses in the first century? Only criminals. Yet Jesus did that to show His love for us, the true criminals, who’ve sinned against a holy God.

“How does this relate to church membership?” you might ask. Becoming a church member is about giving up your preferences. You go from operating alone, spiritually to becoming a part of a spiritual family. You are given a new identity and purpose, connected to others. Rainer states: “The strange thing about church membership is that you actually give up your preferences when you join. Don’t get me wrong; there may be much about your church that you like a lot. But you are there to meet the needs of others. You are there to serve others. You are there to give. You are there to sacrifice.” The word “servant,” or “serve,” is used again and again in Scripture, over 100 times combined and often describes the Christian.

Are we a servant Christian? Are we a servant church? Rainer points out ten dominant behavior patters of churches that are more self serving. I want to name just a few.

• Worship Wars: disagreements arise over the music and its style;
• Prolonged minutia meetings: business gatherings about things that don’t matter;
• Facility focus: taking care of the building at the cost of outreach;
• Program driven: maintaining certain activities without proper evaluating their effectiveness;
• Inwardly focused budget: spending more money on ourselves, than reaching out to the community;
• Attitudes of entitlement: wanting things done my way, at the risk of the best way;
• Greater concern about change than the gospel: The last seven words of the church: “We’ve never done it
that way before.”
• Anger and hostility: disregard for the feelings of others;
• Evangelistic apathy: not caring if others die without Christ and spend an eternity separated from God.

What is a common theme among all of these? Is it not self preservation, rather than serving God in the community? We can look at ourselves individually and know to be selfless rather than selfish. But do we look at ourselves as a church and ask: are we geared toward others, rather than geared towards ourselves? We can come away thinking that all we’re doing is good.

But as a church, we must be careful to be aware that we are here for more reasons than ourselves. We are not a club, nor are we a company. Our bottom line is not the most important thing, rather the changing of hearts and minds. We are called to spend and be spent for the spiritual welfare of others. When we lose sight of those things, we are track to death. Rainer states: “We will never find joy in church membership when we are constantly seeking things our way. But paradoxically, we will find the greatest joy when we choose to be last. That’s what Jesus meant when He said the last will be first. True joy means giving up our rights and preferences and serving everyone else.”

Our programs and activities cannot be that which drives us; rather the gospel, the good news of Jesus. That is what drives us. That is why God placed us in this community. That is the reason for our existence. The ministry, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

One person that saw his life as a response to Jesus’ great act of service was the early 20th century missionary to China, Eric Liddle. What made him such a good runner? What caused him to refuse to run on Sundays? What drove him to leave his comfortable surroundings to go to the Far Easter and minister in Christ’s name? Listen to the following story, as told by Dr. Peter Teague of Lancaster Bible College.

“When Eric entered the University of Edinburgh, he broke one record after another in sporting events. His sister wrote their parents in China saying: “Every week he brings home prizes. We’ve nowhere to put them all.” By the time he arrived at the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics, Eric, dubbed “They Flying Scotsman,” was known worldwide as a powerful athlete and as an outspoken Christian who, despite refusing to race on Sundays, could win the gold.

But fame didn’t stop him from following his parents to China. He arrived there as a missionary in 1925. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, he remained; and in 1943 he found himself interned in a camp outside of Beijing. Conditions were horrible. Eric ministered day-by-day, praying with the sick, coaching the children, witnessing to the lost. At times, though, his head throbbed. He began visibly weakening, and on February 21, 1945, he died. An autopsy revealed a massive brain tumor.

A camp survivor was asked the reason for Liddell’s influence at the camp. She replied that every morning at 6:00 he would rise and light the peanut-oil lantern o the little dormitory table just enough to illumine his Bible and notebook. There he would silently meet God at the start of each new day. It was the Flying Scotsman’s lifelong habit, she said, and the secret of his power.

Today, China is a land of 1.4 billion people. When the missionaries were expelled in 1948, it was estimated there were 850,000 Christians. An official survey in China has reported that the total number of Protestant Christians in the country now stands at 23 million.

Seventy-three percent of Christians have joined the church since 1993. This does not, however, include the vast number of Christians in unregistered house churches. The church in China has multiplied 24 times since 1949 and now the unofficial number is at least 103 million believers. It is estimated there are 9.1 million new Christians each year or 25,000 each day. Thirty-four million Chinese Christians still don not have their own copy of the Bible.”

When we read of Eric Liddle’s legacy and the amazing things that God is doing in China, we cannot help but to ask: “Lord, make my life count! Please use me to do great things for your gospel.” Amen.

Am I a Functioning Church Member?

Responsibility. It is something that we are taught from an early age. Responsibility usually was cultivated through the carrying out of chores. These were things you and I did around the house that were opportunities to care for the home. What were yours? Whether it was making your bed, cleaning your room, feeding the dog or taking out the trash. These tasks, however menial, were valuable because they showed us that we had a part in the upkeep of the home. I know one mother who refused to do the laundry of her teenage sons, so that they would know how to do it when they left for college. The point is that chores advocated for personal responsibility.

Does being a church member carry with it certain responsibilities? How must we operate in the world? What are our errands and tasks? For that, we turn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12. There is more burden on the church now than ever before to get back to its original design and purpose. No doubt, Christianity has had the most influence in our country since our founding. Nevertheless, we can no longer assume that most people attend church or that most people are Christian in this country. I’m not so sure that this was ever the case.

You know, the United States is now a more diverse country than ever before. Not only are people coming to our country from all over the world, but people are all over the map, spiritually. Some have been trained in the fine arts of Bible Study and prayer. Others don’t know how to pray and don’t own a Bible. And there are many people, in many places, in between. Many sociologists characterize our country as following Europe’s example in becoming “Post Christian,” which means that Christianity is no longer the dominant religion or influence. As our country becomes more diverse, we can no longer assume that everyone is coming from the same spiritual base. Take for instance, the following statistics from David Olson’s The American Church in Crises.

• In New England, less than ten percent of the population is in church on any given Sunday. Only two percent of the population of Massachusetts is in church any given Sunday.

• Except for the state of Hawaii, Christianity has not seen a net expansion in any state in the union in over 25 years.

• Over 4,000 local congregations permanently close their doors every year in the U.S. alone.

• Over 3,000 new church plants must be launched each year just to keep up with the changing demographics and population growth in the United States.

It is our role as church members to see ourselves as ambassadors for Jesus Christ. And with being an ambassador comes a desire to understand how we might serve others. Our sensitivities to the spiritual needs of each person will go a long way towards knowing how to minster to them. I like the saying that I found at a church a few years ago. “We have a few pastors, but everyone is a minister.” In reality, every Christian is called by God to a ministry.

If you read Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4, you’ll quickly find that each member has a function and that Christianity is a participant religion. There’s no such thing as an inactive member. And that that God equips those who He calls, in a variety of ways. Not all have the same function. When God calls you to follow Jesus, He does not call you to sit in a pew and receive the benefits of Christianity for rest of your life. Rather, He calls you to serve, like a pitcher: to be filled and to be poured out. Many people have that wrong. So many, that the church in America is struggling.

Recently, we’ve been studying different aspects of church membership. They are divided into the following categories: Functioning, Unifying, Serving, Praying, Leading, and Thanking. We’re going to learn more of what it means to treat our fellow Christians as we study Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member. I hope you will join us on today in the Fellowship Hall for seven weeks of spiritual growth; a great way to start off the New Year! In any organization, we can come to it seeking to have our needs met, our desires fed and miss the real meaning. What would God teach you in this New Year? Get the book: I Am a Church Member. We’ve placed one in your mailbox; There are a few at the Welcome Center, or you may call our church office. Even if you do not have one, come to the Fellowship Hall directly after this service and experience what this is about. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Our work is cut out for us.

It is an oxymoron to be an “inactive” church member. But we have many. How many? Check out these statistics:

• The criterion for being an inactive member is any member who attends fewer than 6 worship services per year.

• On Central’s membership role we have 697 inactive members. You might say, “Well Pastor David, what about those that are on our membership role, but live in Alaska or California? You cannot expect them to attend, do you? Yes, we have those.

• But reality is that we have many church members that live fairly close and never come. Approximately 360 members are within 20 minutes. Can you imagine if just 300 showed up on a regular basis? That would double the size of our church! That would also double the size of our resources for ministry!

What can we do to correct this? How can we reverse it? How can we change this culture? Rainer lists four action points necessary for churches to survive in the future:

Confession: 1 John 1:9 tells us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” What sins do we as a church need to confess? Have we been inwardly focused? Do we have a heart for our community? Rainer states: “Most churches move toward death because they refuse to acknowledge their condition. Use Pete’s prayer?

Prayer: James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” How must we seek God’s direction for our future as a church? We must pray for God to give us wisdom to be the church that He wants us to be. Notice emphasis on Him, not us. Prayer is preparing our hearts to hear from God.

Willingness to Change: Acts 3:19: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord….” How do we need to change as individuals and as a church? Rainer states: “The church has to change decades of cumulative problem behaviors in a very short time.” What are the things that we need to do differently? It is easy to say that “we’re great!” “We’re alright!” “Look at what we’ve done!” But the real question is: “Are we the church that God wants us to be?” More specifically, are you the disciple that God wants you to be!?

Action and Outward Focus: Someone once said that the church is the only organization in the world that does not exist for itself. What are we doing to fulfill the prophecy concerning Jesus in Micah 5:4: “…then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace.” Rainer tells us: “When a church begins to act positively with this radical change, it has essentially become a new church. It is not the church of old that refused to change and move forward.”

We are trying to change a culture in our church, of which our survival depends. Last week was a snapshot. Carol and Daryl Van Dyken came last Sunday to talk about the ministry of Trans World Radio. Daryl was an engineer by trade. At some point, they got tired of seeing themselves of just receiving, and wanted to give. They both felt the call of God to minister full time to the people of the world. They have taken it upon themselves to have a role in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

Since 1988, their calling has taken them to Bonaire, to Sri Lanka, to South Africa and now in the Americas. It’s all about function. They sought to be used by God. Many in the church today are as Rainer puts it: “…membership is about receiving instead of giving, being served instead of serving, rights instead of responsibilities, and entitlements instead of sacrifices.” But as you read 1 Corinthians 12, membership is about functioning. “… Everyone has a role or function. That is why some are hands, feet ears or eyes.”

John Ortberg tells the story in his book The Me I Want To Be. “A freshly minted lieutenant wanted to impress the first private to enter his new office, and he pretended to be on the phone with a general so that the private would know he was somebody. ‘Yes, sir, General, you can count on me,’ he said as he banged the receiver down. Then he asked the private what he wanted. ‘I’m just here to connect your phone, sir.’ May we focus more on our functionality and less on our appearance. Amen?

Our Gift to One Another

To listen,

What do you get the person who has everything? This is a common question at Christmas time. We ask this because we think that Christmas is about gifts. But I would argue that the gifts that Christmas is about are not those that you can buy at Wal-Mart, the mall or the outlets. It’s about gifts that are priceless; those that money cannot buy; and gifts that are all too few in today’s world. We are here because God has been generous to us. And because of that generosity, is there something that we can give one another? The answer should not be surprising.

Recently, I read the story about Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Lincoln frequently visited the hospitals and addressed cheering words to the wounded warriors. On one occasion he found a young fellow whose legs had been amputated, and who was evidently sinking rapidly. “Is there anything I can do for you?” asked Lincoln. “You might write a letter to my mother,” was the faint reply. The President wrote at the youth’s dictation: “My dearest mother: I have been shot bad, but am bearing up. I tried to do my duty. They tell me I cannot recover. God bless you and Father; kiss Mary and John for me.” At the end were these words as postscript: “Written by Abraham Lincoln.”

When the boy perused the epistle and saw these added words, he looked with astonishment at the visitor and asked, “Are you our President?” “Yes,” was the quiet answer, “and now that you know that, is there anything else I can do for you?” Feebly the lad said, “I guess you might hold my hand, and see me through.” That night, the tall, yet gentle president, took the time to see this young soldier through the most difficult stage of his life. He provides us a picture of compassion.

That story accentuates the love that God shows us in the gift of His son. I am a firm believer that Christmas is about the gospel, the generosity of God. What is the gospel? IT is the story of God’s love and God’s truth, stated on the back of your bulletin. It says that no one knows you better than the One who created you. You are here because He loved you and fashioned you together in your mother’s womb. You entered this world in all of its complexities with sin. Because of being related to Adam and Eve, the first couple, you come with their baggage. You are sinful by nature and by decision. You are separated from God.

But God, in His love, saw your predicament and mine and sent His missionary, the only One that could remedy the situation. He sent His Son Jesus as a sacrifice for your sin (1 John 4:10) to bridge the gulf between you and he. Lastly, it is your place to respond to such generosity. Your response should be that of repentance and faith. Repentance is turning from your sin and asking forgiveness. Faith is embracing God and following His Son Jesus Christ. It is a situation where Jesus sits on the throne of your heart, rather than yourself. You are a new person because God the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in your life. Your whole outlook, your whole decisions are different because of Him. That is the gospel and tells of the kindness of God. Maybe you’ve heard this before? Many of us know this. Many others take it for granted. But it is God’s good news and still changes lives every day.

And it is based on that good news that Christians should be the most loving people in the world. Today, I want to talk about that precious gift that we can show one another, not only at Christmas, but year round. Simply stated, we can love, because God has loved to us. So, how is that done? First, consider how we as Christians, ought to treat one another. In the last week of his earthly ministry, in anticipation of the cross, Jesus met with His disciples and shared with them from His heart. He said in John 15:12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.” And verse 16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit– fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.”

If there was one thing that the Lord wanted the church to be known for, it is the love that we show one another. What are some ways that Jesus loved His disciples? For one, He was patient with them. Within the body of Christ, it is so easy to learn of each other’s faults and idiosyncrasies. Are we willing to bear with each other? Do we have it to overlook things that annoy us or get on each other’s nerves? Colossians 3:12 talks about: “… bearing with each other and forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Who do you need to show kindness to? A parent? A sibling? A spouse? A child? A neighbor? Maybe it is someone’s memory?

Secondly, he was a risk taker with His love. The people who were a part of His band were a rough crowd. Fisherman, tax collectors, some were even people involved in the most scandalous of deeds (prostitutes). I wonder how big of a risk taker we are with our love. I must confess I gravitate to those that are easy to love, those that love me back, those that love me maybe more than I love them. Those that do nice things for me. But am I a risk taker with my love? Am I willing to love someone and show them compassion regardless of what I receive in return? Maybe it’s an enemy? Maybe it is someone who we know very little about? Jesus makes that statement that has always convicted me. He said earlier in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Are you willing to love someone before they love you back? Are we willing to take a risk on someone?

We’re going to learn more of what it means to treat our fellow Christians as we study Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member. I hope you will join us on Sunday, January 12 at 10 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall for seven weeks of spiritual growth; a great way to start off the New Year! In any organization, we can come to it seeking to have our needs met, our desires fed and miss the real meaning because of our innate selfishness, by default. What would God teach you in the New Year? Get a book by calling our church office (610.584.4480) and show up on January 12!

And then there’s how Christians ought to treat the world. What do we, as a church, owe our neighbors and one another because of God’s generosity? One is goodness. Paul said in Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” In a world that is growing emotionally and relationally colder by the minute, it is the church of Jesus Christ that shows redemptive love.

I appreciate our Advent Responsive Litany from yesterday. It said: “In a hurried world with little time for others, Advent calls us to remember that love is patient. In a world where often we become consumed by our own interests, Advent calls us to remember that love is kind. In a world where we are quick to anger and slow to forgive, Advent calls us to remember that love is not easily angered, and through love we come to forgive. This Advent let us behold the love of God embodied in our Savior’s birth.”

It might seem small, but sometimes the most subtle acts of kindness are what the world needs. And aren’t we called to do them? If Christians don’t, who will? The elevator man was gruff, and in his estimation the little, frail old lady who got on last made one passenger too many in his car. “Take the next car,” he commanded gruffly. “Take the next car!” slipping his hand in front of her. But the little old lady, frightened in the crowd, seemed deaf to his remark and unconscious that anything was required of her. A young lady from the middle of the car worked her way out to make one passenger less.

The aged woman, happy at being able to find room, did not notice that anything had been done for her. The elevator man did not appear to notice. Nobody thanked the girl, as, pressed for time in her busy day, she stood looking a little wistfully after the ascending car, thinking perhaps that it was merely a sacrifice of time that counted for little. But doubtless every heart in that car, as it went up, was beating with some better impulse because of that little kindness so unobtrusively done. One of the things that made Paul the best missionary that the world has ever seen, was the love that Jesus had showed him. So he says in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ compels us…. Because of the work of God in His life, Paul committed himself to the ministry of reconciliation, telling others about how great the love of God is toward those who would turn and follow.

Jesus described the end times in Matthew 24: 12: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold….” In this world where compassion is becoming rare; and truth is an elusive thing, I want to remind you that Christmas is a display of God’s love to you. What the angels told the shepherds is still applicable now more than ever before. Luke 2:10 says: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

A Reasonable Response

How do you respond when someone presents you with a gift? Surprised? Grateful? Embarrassed?

How would you have responded by receiving the following gifts? Police detective Robert Cunningham liked to hang out at Sal’s Pizzeria in Yonkers, New York. One day in 1984, in lieu of a tip, Cunningham offered waitress Phyllis Penzo half interest in a lottery ticket. What happened next? You guessed it. Penzo’s ticket was worth $3 million. Their story became the film “It Could Happen to You.”

Or what would you have done if Elvis Presley would have approached you with a gift? Starting in 1955, Elvis gave Cadillacs to friends, family, business associates, bodyguards, backup singers, and many others. On July 27, 1975, alone, he spent $140,000 on 14 Cadillacs that he then gave as gifts (one to a total stranger).

None of us here have received a winning lottery ticket or a Cadillac fro a celebrity. But we do serve a generous God who gave us something much better. How do we respond to God’s generosity? Last week we talked about God’s gift in Jesus Christ, based on Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things.” This morning, we continue our study of gifts and look at how we respond to God’s gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But how do we receive His gift? In His day, Jesus was received in many ways. Some listened. Others followed. Still some departed with indifference. What is your response to Him this Christmas? Is it just another holiday that demands certain activity and preparation? Or should it be a life-changing time for us, from the inside out?

At the heart of this is how we react to God’s glory. In Exodus 33, Moses is having a dialogue with God. Moses said: “Show me Your glory!” But God responds that no man can see Him and live. But then at the appointed time, God sent His Son, Jesus, as the manifestation of His glory. Now compare this with John 1:14 which tells us about the advent of Jesus: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Pastor Tim Keller states that “There are not just two ways to respond to God but three: irreligion, religion, and the gospel.” “Being religious,” on the other hand, is the world’s description of a changed life. But we know that it is not about religiosity. Rather, it is about relationship that changes a life.

In contrast to religiosity, those who genuinely received Jesus could not help but be radically changed from that time on. Within them was a personal adjustment. Something occurred that was so important that it rearranged their lives. John 14:23 means keeping, love, abiding.

Things are different because of who lives there. Talk to someone who owns a rental property. They will tell you that good tenants make all the difference in the world. The problem is when renters don’t’ treat the home like their own! If there is change, is it because someone Good has taken up residence in us.

Let’s consider the following. Some responded in awe. The wise men presented gifts and fell down and worshipped Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Others radically changed their lives. Matthew was a tax collector. He made money from being dishonest. Tax collectors were some of the most despised people in first century Palestinian culture because they worked for the other team. Notice what Luke 5:27 says: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth.”Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” Matthew saw something in Jesus that he desperately needed. So he left his lifestyle of dishonesty and became a disciple.

And there were some that were more deliberate. Nicodemus visited Jesus by night and was gradually convinced that He was the Messiah (John 3); Others responded with offerings of restoration. In Luke 19:8, we are told that Zaccheus, another tax collector, gave half of his possessions to the poor and restored those he swindled with four times the amount of restoration.

And then there were those that responded with extravagance. Take, for instance, the woman mentioned in Luke 7:37: “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” She spent an exorbitant amount to how Jesus what He meant to her. Jesus highlights her generosity with the words: “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven– for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” When God does something; when He discloses Himself to us, hopefully there is unction to respond in some way. God’s disclosure brings about change in our lives.

In contrast, there were those who acted with indifference. I find these discouraging and know that human goodness is not a reality. If that were so, Jesus would have had universal acceptance. Even in his day and area, some displayed apathy. Matthew 13:58: “And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” Or John 6: 66: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Receptivity to God can be defined in many ways. What about you? How are you affected by Christmas and the thought of Jesus coming to your world? Does it do something in you? Certainly there is faith and repentance. Repentance and faith have always been the way that humans have responded to God. Jesus said in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repentance means to turn; a change of heart and mind. Faith is identified with trust. It was an embracing of God.

Forgiveness. In other words, one cannot know God intimately and hold a grudge or be embittered. Colossians 3:12 teaches us: “…as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

Maybe there’s a willingness to serve. After Isaiah experienced the vision of the Lord in His temple and was cleansed of His unclean lips, he could not help but respond: “Here am I, Lord, Send me.”

With faith and repentance also comes love for others. Here, I’m speaking of neighborly love towards each other 1 John 3:10 says: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”

In one of Jesus’ last conversations He had with His disciples, he tells them of heaven and that He was going away to prepare a place for them. He spoke of the Holy Spirit coming and that He wanted them to love one another. He also spoke of the indicator of their love for God, which was obeying His teaching. John 14:21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” 22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” Interesting is the fact that He is about to go away. Shortly after this conversation, Jesus would die on the cross, then rise again, and eventually ascend into heaven. A circle of love and obedience would characterize those who belong to the invisible church. Then in verse 23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” From this we know that love is out of commitment; not a feeling. Feelings fade; commitment is lasting.

Donald Carson states: “Jesus words refer not only to the resurrection appearances to the first disciples but also the corresponding self-disclosures of Jesus to His displaces in later times.” After all, Jesus said in Matthew 28:20: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

How will you respond to God’s generosity this Christmas? Will you receive Jesus like He was your favorite gift of all time, embracing Him, loving Him and following Him? Your obedience to His teaching as an indicator of a change that has taken place within you? Or will you enjoy Him nostalgically for a time, just to go on about your business? Jesus is received in different ways this holiday season. How is He received by you?

As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Back in the 1870’s Egypt rejected sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi’s plan to build the Statue of Liberty as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal. So the Franco-American Union, private citizens, and companies raised the money to give the statue to America for its centennial. From then on, it has been a treasured symbol of our freedom in America.

Chris Tomlin, well known Christian songwriter, was recently quoted: “I’m never going to apologize for saying Christmas is about Jesus Christ,” he said. “Someday you may be put in jail for that, but too bad.” When asked if he would be willing to be imprisoned for Christ, Tomlin responded: “Of course I would.” Why would he say such a thing? Because he appreciates the gift!