Tag Archives: Christmas

The Greatest Gift of All

Christmas causes us to ask the question, “Who is this?” If you were to ask the people of Nazareth, they may say: “he was Mary and Joseph’s son, who grew up a carpenter.” Jesus was not warmly received by everyone. In Mark 6, He went to his hometown of Nazareth and was coldly received by his peers and others with whom He was raised.

If you were to ask the disciples, they would say: “He is the Lord of glory, who even the wind and waves obeyed Him!” (See Mark 4:35-41)

If you were to ask the angels of heaven, they would say: “He is good news for all people- the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2 is a familiar Christmas passage, one about the Greatest Gift of All. It contains an announcement, news made public. Announcements are as useful to today as they were 2,000 years ago. Throughout history, they have come in varied mediums. In the Ancient Near East, they were given audibly. Today, we see them come across the ticker on our television set. We hear them over an intercom, or read them on the front page of the newspaper. An announcement is meant to inform, to prepare us. With this in mind, we must ask, what was the greatest announcement of all time? Its bearers: the angels of heaven. Its hearers: the shepherds of Palestine. It’s content: God. It was and remains today the most important announcement of human history.

But today, we see how the angels appeared to the shepherds and answered the question: “Who is this?”

THIS GIFT WAS GOOD NEWS FOR EVERYONE.
Let me explain. Luke 2:10 reads, But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. The angel brought to the shepherds of long ago, …good news of great joy that will be for all the people. When was the last time you heard some really good news? If we pick up our local newspapers or flick on the news at ten, we are given plenty of bad news. But the angels said this would be good news for all people. In other words, all people without distinction. We see this in the message’s first recipients. It would not be for just the rich or ruling. It was not exclusive to the merchant class. Shepherds were not your upper middle class of ancient Palestine. They were poor and smelled bad. Rather, this announcement would be good news for all people: black and white, men and women, poor and rich, ruling and ruled.

Do you need good news? The application to you this: Jesus came for you regardless of your race, your gender or your assets. He came in spite of who you are or what you have done. He came to provide for your greatest need. Christ came for you. Do you know that if you were the only one on this earth, Jesus still would have come to die on the cross for you? And this is good news. But why, you might ask? Next, we find that…

THE GIFT WAS A PERSON, BUT NO ORDINARY PERSON.
Once again, …the angel said to them, “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. The reason that Christmas is good news to you and me is because Jesus is the world’s only Savior. In order to appreciate the good news, you must first understand the bad news. You see each one of us has disobeyed God from birth. Since the fall of humankind, not a one of you was taught how to lie, how to be selfish, how to steal. You do that naturally. The late R.C. Sproul said, “We are not sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful.” Because the God of the universe is perfect in character, all sin greatly offends Him, and requires His judgment.

But God, in His love, sent Jesus to be the answer to our horrible predicament.
Jesus was God’s promised gift. At the time of the fall, we see from Genesis chapter three that God promised to put enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Genesis 3 15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Jesus is the One who crushes Satan’s head. And for that, we must be thankful.

The birth of Christ answers our hearts greatest longing. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise Christmas is a reminder of hope, that God saw our greatest need and provided it for us. Someone once wrote:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

Think about it. God, looking upon your plight, sent His only Son to deliver you from such a dilemma. This is why Jesus is called Savior. The Greek word means one who rescues, one who delivers, one who preserves. It is the same word used in Matthew 1:21 in which the angel said to Joseph concerning his fiancée Mary: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” That has been good news for me. Whereas I have offended God through my actions, a relationship with God can be reestablished through faith in the who came and gave His life for me.

Kevin DeYoung states:
“The point of the gospel is not that Jesus saves us from low self-esteem, or from singleness, or from our crummy job. Sin is our deepest, most fundamental, most pervasive problem. Other teachers and heroes may be able to save us from life’s stresses and disappointments, but with this problem of sin, there is only One who can save, and His name is Jesus.”

Jesus was also called Christ. This was His title. Christ was the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew term Messiah, God’s chosen One who was promised to come to redeem Israel.

And He was also known as Lord. Jesus is Lord. That means He is Master. He is God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the One who the angels worship.

Not to be overlooked was the fact that this message was delivered by angels, God’s messengers. Luke 2:13: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”

These angels bore the message to the shepherds. God’s most important messages were always delivered by angels. They would sometimes bring messages of judgement. Other times they would announce warning or doom. Still other times they would deliver messages of encouragement. Here, they chose to appear to shepherds, which tells us that God cares for the common person.

CONCLUSION
This gift is exactly what we needed. Dare I say Jesus is the reason we give gifts at Christmas time. American author E. B. White said: “To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.”

I could never erase the guilt of my disobedience, Christ did it for me when He died on the cross. By virtue of His death, he saves those who come to Him by faith. Hebrews 7:25 tells us, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him… Christmas is good news because of what Christ did for us.
Let us never miss the meaning of Christmas. In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their “flying machine” off the ground. Thrilled, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine: “We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.” Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, “How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas.” The editor had completely missed the point! Don’t miss the point of Christmas. Jesus came for you.

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!

God’s Gift to Us

As I approached this Advent season, I thought about the one thing that seems to be common among most Americans. That is the purchase of gifts. The day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, has become just as popular as any day of the year. A week or so ago, I read that there were people camping out in front of some stores, ready to take advantage of the bargains offered.

This Advent season, I want to focus on gifts. A gift, by definition is something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation. For instance, if someone gifts you money, it is given without the obligation to pay it back. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, many of us have to shop for the teacher, the bus driver, the boss, the piano instructor, the uncle that has everything, etc., etc. And we are hard pressed to mention what we want, especially if we are satisfied and have need of nothing. A fellow pastor stated: “I have to put together a wish list of gift ideas for Christmas and I cannot think of anything. Feeling like I have to invent something to want.”

In 2011, a record was set on Black Friday weekend. According to cnn.com: “Earlier than ever store openings and steep discounts helped retailers notch record sales …. Total spending over the four-day weekend following Thanksgiving two years ago reached a record $52.4 billion, up 16% from $45 billion in 2010, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation released Sunday. A record 226 million consumers shopped in stores and online between Thursday and Sunday, up from 212 million the year before. Individual shoppers spent more too, the NRF said. The average holiday shopper shelled out $398.62, up from $365.34 in 2010. All this to say that shopping for Christmas gifts is a big deal.

And yet, we could lose sight of those gifts that money cannot buy. Those things that in fact, define generosity, but you don’t have to camp out in front of Best Buy or Wal-Mart to get them.

Over the next few Sundays, I would like to look at the idea of gifts, and focus on those that are more spiritual in nature. Today, I ask: What have you been given? Let’s look at God’s gift to us. Our Scripture is taken from Romans 8:32, where Paul writes: “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?”

The verse is nestled in a larger passage of Romans 8:31-39. Paul, having established his argument of justification by faith alone in Christ alone: that in order to be justified in the eyes of God, based on the merits of Christ. In order to take advantage of these gifts, one must repent and trust Christ. He states this explicitly in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

And with trusting Christ, there are mounds of blessings that come our way. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin, wrote: “It is a remarkable and clear evidence of inappreciable love, that the Father refused not to bestow His Son for our salvation. And so Paul draws an argument from the greater to the less, that as he had nothing dearer, or more precious, or more excellent than His Son, He will neglect nothing of what he foresees will be profitable to us.” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, 322)

So what are those things that we’ve been given, as followers of Jesus Christ; things that money could not pay for? Consider the following:

Because of God’s generosity, we are given the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity, He has been given to us as our Comforter, Guide and Friend. He prays for us, as verse 26 says: “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words….” The gift of the Spirit is in spite of the groaning of creation and the longing of redemption of our bodies, which will occur when Jesus returns. The Holy Spirit fills in the blanks as we come to the Lord by faith.

Because of God’s generosity, we are also given the gift of predestinating grace. Romans 8:29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” The simplest way to put this is that God chooses His bride. He does not choose everyone, but gracious picks those who will come to Him by faith and gives them the faith they need to come to Him. Jesus said in John 6:44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” This is the wonderful knowledge meant for every Christian to know that God has chosen me as His very own, even in spite of my hatred and rebellion towards Him. He softened my heart and made me receptive to His good news. And I am where I am today because of Him. He picked me and worked in my heart to redeem me from sin’s guilt and power.

He did this on the basis of His Son, Jesus, who went to the cross and died for you and me. God’s greatest gift was Jesus. Jesus was not just a gift to us, but delivered up for us. This implies that He died in our place. He was like us in being human, flesh and blood. He was unlike us in that He was God’s one and only Son. And He was offered as a sacrifice in our place. Isaiah 9:6: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us….” The Messiah was a gift to us. Not on loan, even undeserving! Jesus came as our gift.

Contrast it with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God asked Abraham to take his Son, his only Son, to the wilderness and sacrifice him as an offering. Genesis 22:2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Abraham obeyed in faith, but Isaac was spared, as God provided the ram in the thicket. The angel said in Genesis 22:12: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said.”Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Now consider the words of John 3:16, when Jesus spoke of Himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” We are so familiar with those words, could it be that they are easily overlooked? Consider the way that Pastor John Piper puts it in perspective: “I have heard it said, ‘God didn’t die for frogs. So he was responding to our value as humans.’ This turns grace on its head. We are worse off than frogs. They have not sinned. They have not rebelled and treated God with the contempt of being inconsequential in their lives. God did not have to die for frogs. They aren’t bad enough. We are. Our debt is so great, only a divine sacrifice could pay it.” As you prepare for the upcoming holidays, remember that God’s love is more incredible than we could ever imagine. So what do we do? How do we respond? Consider the following:

• A Holy Pause. Stop, think and say a prayer of thanksgiving; several prayers of thanksgiving. Jesus lived a full life and yet died at 33. What is the key to that fullness? His agenda was the Father’s agenda. We must stop, think and pray so as not to miss out on how God might speak to us this Christmas season.

• A Worshipful Heart. Make time to worship. Thank God this Christmas season, not just because of what He has given you, but because of who He is!

• A Willing Spirit. Sacrifice. What can you do for others with little return? What can you sacrifice in order to bless someone else? Even when they don’t deserve it! That’s the best time to give it to them! I read this statement recently and I believe it to be true. Think about it: “Blessings are the currency of God’s love. Today is more than a time to remember how many we have for we are all rich, it is a time to think about how we will give away what we have been given.”

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be looking at other aspects of gifts such as our gift to God and our gift to others. What if Jesus had not come? Would we have these things? The Holy Spirit? Predestinating grace? Jesus’ precious sacrifice for sin and all that comes with it? Our lives would be vastly different; our world would be vastly different. Let me end with this story from Missionary Monthly: Bobby had read in his Bible lesson with Daddy just before bedtime the words, “If I had not come.” When he (thought he) awoke Christmas morning there was no stocking or holly wreath. He went for a walk and found factories busy at work; he went to the orphanage and found only a vacant lot. Then he went to his church and found a “For Sale” sign with “If I had not come” written at the bottom. Again he found these words over a gate post of an empty lot, where he went to find a hospital. Disconsolate, he ran home and picked up his Bible, but all the last part of the Book had blank pages. He awoke, found that it was a dream! And with that he slipped down on his knees and said, “Oh, dear Jesus, I am so glad that You did come. Help me to tell others about You.”

A Series of Gifts: Worship

The following message is based on Matthew 2:1-11 and presents the subject of worship, taking the example of the Magi.  Their example reminds us that worship is an action of adoration directed to Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.  It was delivered on Christmas Eve, 2012 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church.

When we reflect on the original Christmas story, many images come to mind.  We think of the manger or stable, because Mary and Joseph could not find a room at the inn.  We think of the shepherds who obeyed the call of the angels to come and find the Christ child.  And of course, there are the wise men.  Magi, as they’re known, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

During this season of Advent, we have been studying those gifts which money cannot buy, that cannot be secured with a credit card or purchased online; those things that are spiritual in nature, which God affords us through Christmas.  Not meant as an exhaustive list, we first looked at forgiveness of sins, then joy; and yesterday assurance.  Tonight we look at a special gift as we focus on Matthew’s account of these men from the East, the Magi, as they are known, to see the significance behind their visit.  Let us look at the gift of worship.

What is worship? Is it a noun?  Is it a service with an organ, hymn books and such on Sundays?  Or is it a verb, an action word?  Maybe most people would assume the former.  But  A.W. Tozer, popular 20th century pastor and writer, defined worship as something that we do when he said this: “Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that Majesty which philosophers call the First Cause, but which we call Our Father Which Art in Heaven.[1]  My aim this afternoon is to remind us of what worship is and why we are here.  It centers on the gift of Jesus.  We see a great example of worship in the actions of the Magi.

These were a group of men that traveled from far away.  They came from the East.  They probably traveled from lands as far away as Babylon, Persian or the Arabian desert.  These Gentile men were influenced by the Old Testament prophecy that a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel (Numbers 24:17).  From the Jews in their land and their own interest in the stars, they knew that they must follow this star that had been so prominent in the night sky.  After days of traveling through the Middle East, they finally reached the birthplace of the king. This particular star would later rest above the town of Bethlehem, where they were probably met by the shepherds, telling them of the angel’s message.  So when they saw the star they knew they had arrived and “…rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Now look at what these sojourners do when they come upon Christ who was just days old at this time.  Verse 11 tells us that “…they came into the house and saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Mary and Joseph had moved from the stable and are now in a much more comfortable place.  The Magi are let in and they pay their respects to the baby Jesus.  Now we are not to think that they worshipped Jesus like Christians worship Him today.  The NRSV simply says that they “paid homage to Him.”  They certainly recognized him as a monarch.  They knew this little one was the sovereign of Israel, but did they know that His reign occupied the kingdom of God?  God uses their gestures to show us the significance of Christ.  These gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were no doubt signs of respect and reverence in the ancient Near East.

What is their significance?  Gold has always been a very costly item, the most precious of metals, and at one time measuring the true value of any monetary system.  Frankincense was thought to have been a glittering odorous gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of several trees.  Myrrh was a much valued spice and perfume found in Arabia and a few other places.  Psalm 45:8 tells us of the dress of the king: “All Thy garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia;”   In other words, all three of these gifts were expensive and given by the Magi to the newborn King.

Matthew 2:11 states: “And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The Greek term is proskunew which means: “to fall down and worship, to prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, or welcome respectfully.  The Persians had a custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing his feet, the hem of his garment, the ground, etc. before their deified king.[2]

This reminds us that true worship involves self-abasement, self sacrifice, and self-denial.  It has nothing to do with the right genre of music or a sermon that happens to be entertaining.  Although God did not call us to be boring, we who participate in worship (the entire congregation) must keep in mind that God is the center of attention.  Worship is an action directed towards Him.  It is not an event that we attend like a football game or a hockey match.  It involves adoration, praise.  It is not entertainment.  It is more than just a service; it is a lifestyle.  The attention is on God!

Every person is religious; we all worship something.  For some, it may be an image; for others, it may be themselves.  Still for others, it may be a drive for success, the accumulation of wealth.  And there are those that worship pleasure, the satisfaction of our appetites, whatever that might be.  I recently asked a college-age friend of mine what were the idols on his campus.  He said: “gold, girls and glory.”  As I said yesterday, God has created each of us with a hole in our soul that can only be filled by Him.  We might try to fit other things in there, but we will never be truly satisfied unless we come to Christ and are reconciled to Him.

One of the interesting things in this story is that the title that the Magi gave Jesus, is what would later hang above Jesus’ head as He hung on the cross: King of the Jews.  As a type of irony, to prove God’s endorsement of His one and only Son, He was called “King of the Jews” at His birth and at His death!

In contrast to the Magi, you have Herod.  King Herod was not really concerned about the birth of Christ, as you can read later in his slaughter of the innocents.  He was probably disturbed out of insecurity and jealousy.  Herod was a ruthless king.  Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian writes this epitaph:  “A man he was of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passions…”[3]

What can we learn from such things?  Certainly this: that those closest to the means of grace, and those that should have the best understanding of God, are sometimes far from Him.  And those that we might least suspect would have a desire for him, are sometimes the hungriest.  The magi, traveled from far away to worship the King of the Jews.  The whole of the Scribes and Pharisees were close by, yet showed no desire to investigate the birth of Christ.  And even when they were exposed to Jesus’ teaching, never responded in as much to leave their own comfort zone, and yet they knew the most.

Some of us who have attended church all of our lives run the risk of losing our passion for Christ.  We think that we’ve “heard it all before.”  We might be the most susceptible to “missing the boat.”  Then there are those that have lived apart from Christ all of their lives.  When they hear the gospel for the first time, it appears as how it was meant- revolutionary.  J.C. Ryle, English pastor of the late 19th century said: “Let us beware of resting satisfied with head-knowledge.  It is an excellent thing, when rightly used.  But a man may have much of it, and yet perish everlastingly.  What is the state of our hearts?  This is the great question.”[4]

Christ is worthy of our worship, just as He was worthy of theirs.  He is Lord and king and we must recognize Him as such.      Back then the Magi gave Him gifts.  Jesus then gave His life.  Today, He asks us if we would give Him our lives.  Communion is a symbol of that exchange, where we recognize His gift and we offer ourselves back to Him.  The bread represents His body.  The cup represents His blood.  This is why belieivers often recite the Apostle’s Creed on communion Sundays, a statement that provides a summary of what it taught in the New Testament.  Communion is also a time of confession and rededication.   As we partake of the symbols together, let us remember all that Christ has done for us.


[1] A.W. Tozer, quoted in D.J. Fant, A.W. Tozer, Christian Publications, 1964, p. 90.

[2] BAGD, 716-17.

[3] The Works of Josephus (Ant., XVII, viii, 1).

[4] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 11.

“A Series of Gifts: Assurance”

The following message is taken from Luke 1:26-38, the passage which tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, telling her of God’s special plan for the birth of Christ.  It was preached on December 16 and 23, 2012.

 

What is assurance?  Webster’s uses such words as security, a being certain in the mind, confidence of mind or manner; easy freedom from self-doubt or uncertainty.  Today, people place their assurance in many places.  Some put their assurance in government, whoever holds office.  Some put their assurance in their education or career, their ability to make money. Others put their assurance in relationships- whether it is in a child or a spouse or a friend.  When these relationships dissolve, they feel lost and alone.  This past week, the parents of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, sent their children off to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, school fully expecting to see them at the end of the day.  Tragically, they could not be assured of this.

But do any of these destinations for our assurance please God?  At a strategic time in their history, Israel sought an unhealthy alliance with the Egyptians.  Isaiah 31:1 states: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.”  Before then; and since then, God has been showing man that He must realize his own self abasement and that He is desperately in need of God for his life to have meaning and purpose. God has created each of us with a void that can only be filled by Him.

This could have been the thoughts of the young Virgin Mary, before she was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce her role in bearing the Christ child. This morning, let us consider this event and see that yet another gift that Jesus came to give was and is assurance.  We first learn that…

ASSURANCE COMES ONLY FROM GOD.

Note Luke 1:26: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  “But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be.”  After the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she was scared to death.  Fear is a real part of life.  Mary was afraid when she encountered the angel.  But notice that the angel dispels her fear by informing her that she is being picked for a very special role in the plans of God.  Verse 30: ‘And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.

This brings up the interesting roles of angels.  An angel tops some of your Christmas trees in your homes.  What place do they have in the Christmas story?  Last week, we saw how the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Christ.  “Do not fear, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people….”  Here we see the role of Gabriel, one of God’s special angels.  Let us be reminded of the role of angels.  They are given the task of announcing, providing protection, and service. As Hebrews 1:14 teaches, they are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.

Here, the angel would tell Mary that she was a special individual in the plans of God.  She is not our co-redemptrixt, as some churches teach.  Nor is she to be the recipient of our prayers.  We pray to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; not another human being.  But Mary is the mother of the Lord Jesus and a willing servant to the things of God.  She was a woman of incredible faith.  Her statement in verse 38 is a statement we should all adopt for our lives: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Just as Mary needed God’s assurance, we do too.  Through a colleague of mine, he received this quote from someone in the ministry: “When bad things like this happen, people ask, “why doesn’t God do something?”  Well, He did.  He sent Jesus.  It is our job to let them know.” Not only do we find that assurance comes from God, next, we discover that…

REAL ASSURANCE IS FOUND ONLY IN JESUS.

What will happen is listed in verse 30.  This explains who Jesus is.  First of all, “He will be great.”  Secondly, “He will be called the Son of the Most high.”  Then there are two statements that attribute the office of the Messiah to Jesus.  “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  His kingdom will have no end.”  There is tremendous Jewish significance in this statement.  I mentioned last week that in the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.

This citation is a reference from the book of Daniel, 7:13.  It says: “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. 14 “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”  Many times, Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man.  That was because He fulfilled this reference in the book of Daniel as God’s unique Son.

Christians live with the knowledge that God is upon His throne.  He reigns perfectly.  He will right every wrong and bring justice to the earth one day.  Although I experience heinous crimes, disease, disappointment and stress in this life, God has so ordered my existence that my comfort is not the main objective, but that I may be formed to be more like Christ, so that I can live and reign with Him when He returns.  Paul wrote in Romans 7:24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There are those things to be afraid of; but our fear should be diminished by the assurance that we have in Christ.  Listen to the following testimony by Subal Dang from India.  He writes of Bhubaneswar, a city in central India, where 1.9 million people live.  “Bhubaneswar is mostly Hindu.  Nearly 95% of the surrounding Orissa State is Hindu.  This perspective dominates the government, and it can make it difficult to be a Christian at times.  The radical Hindu groups are the most dangerous.  In 2008 there was some very significant violence directed toward Christians in my area. Some Christians were killed, churches were burned, and many lost their homes and property.

This continues in Orissa where Christians still live in a state of insecurity and danger.  Sometimes government food supplies that should be distributed among the poor are not delivered to the Christians.  In some villages Christian children are not allowed access to government schools.  The former archbishop of the Catholic Church in the Orissa region, Raphael Cheenath has said: “There is no violence, but there is no peace.  About 16,000 families have no homes and Christians are not allowed to return to 20 villages unless they convert to Hinduism.  In many villages in Kandhamal, Christians live with mistreatment and humiliation every day. They are not allowed to take water from the village well, collect firewood, or buy food from shops.  The authorities do nothing to prevent such abuse, even if we have made complaints. Their silence is disturbing.”

Christmas remains one of the most exciting times for Christians even with threats in nearby regions.  It is a time to send cards or give gifts to friends and family.  On Christmas Day, almost all families will go to church services in the morning.  Afterwards there will be a time of feasting for the entire church.  In the evening on December 25, Christians will gather at the church and dance, sing, act our plays, or perform comic routines.  We will also act out Bible stories such as Jesus’ birth.

Christmas is also a time for more intense spiritual discipline in for Christian in my part of the world.  Some people like to fast during this time.  They may fast for 2-3 days around Christmas.  Others will devote themselves to special prayer times.  Some will pray for the gospel message to reach the world or for peace.  Others pray for the gospel ministry in India, especially since other religious groups are more open to the Christian message.

Fear and joy were a part of the very first Christmas.  The angel told (Mary) not to fear because she had found favor with God.  This Christmas, I hope that you, too, will seek favor with God.  If you are feeling fear, being in the center of God’s will is the best place to be.[2]

This morning, we have found that assurance is comes from God and found only in Jesus.  This means that assurance is possible, regardless of our contexts or the experiences we face.  God has created us in such a way that real assurance can only be found in knowing Him.  Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century church father, said: “…because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”[3]

 

A Series of Gifts: Good News!

The following message is based on Luke 2:8-21, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus.  It was delievered on December 9, 2012

An announcement is news made public.  Announcements are as useful to today as they were 2,000 years ago.  They come in varied mediums, whether they come across the ticker at the bottom of the television screen, over an intercom, or on the front page of the newspaper.  An announcement is meant to inform or prepare us. Some announcements are good; others are disappointing, still others are devastating.  In Brenda Warner’s book, One Call Away, the author writes of different times in her life when a phone call brought her to the brink.  For instance, a healthy baby tragically injured in the bathtub; a sudden end to a career she loved; betrayal and divorce; poverty; public humiliation; a deadly natural disaster that destroyed her foundation and shook her to her core. In response, she chose to rely on the Lord Jesus Christ and realized that He had a plan through it all.  Announcements can be life-changing.

Luke 2:10 contains most likely the greatest announcement of all time. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”  The scene takes place on the day of or shortly after Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Some shepherds were in the field outside of the city, watching their flocks.  It is interesting that God chose shepherds to announce the birth of his Son. Shepherds were among the working class of the first century.  They were dirty and smelled of their jobs.  They were not necessarily a prestigious class.  Hard work and poverty can be depressing.  These were people that could’ve probably used some good news.

This announcement comes to them and at first, they are filled with fear.  Another translation states that they were “terrified.”  This was due to the awesome presence of the angelic majesty.  But the angel tells them “do not be afraid.”  For they are about to be given good news of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Shepherds were a good example of that inclusiveness that makes Christmas and Easter and Christianity so special.  The gospel is for every man, woman, boy and girl, regardless of background, skin color, vocation or caste.

The reason that they would not give way to fear is that this announcement was a source of good news that produced great joy.  Our world is desperate for good news.  If we pick up our local newspapers or turn on the radio, or watch the television, we find despair abounds.  Natural disasters, disease, and violence are common.  Love seems to be a premium in our world today. But the angels said this would be good news for all people.  Jesus would come as the world’s only Savior.

In the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.  Remember what the angel said to Joseph as we studied last week from Matthew 1:20: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In order to appreciate the good news, you must first understand the bad news.  Each one of us has disobeyed God from birth.  Since the fall of humankind, not one of us was taught how to lie, how to be selfish, or how to steal.  We do that naturally.  R.C. Sproul says: “We are not sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful.”  Since the God of the universe is perfect in character, all sin greatly offends Him.  But God, looking upon our plight, sent us one who would deliver us from such a dilemma.  This is why Jesus is called the Savior.

This message is becoming more dear to those who believe it and more repulsive to those who hate it.  Consider the words of the late new atheist Christopher Hitchens: “. . . I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

Do you need good news today?  Consider this!  God did something for you many years ago that you could never do for yourself.  He sent His one and only Son Jesus to this earth to save you from sin’s guilt and power.  When you could never erase the guilt of your disobedience, Christ did it for you when He died on the cross.  For those who would turn from their sin and put their trust in Him, Jesus not only forgives us, but grants us eternal life, regardless of your race, your gender or your assets.  Maybe you have no church affiliation, or at least you have not taken God or church very seriously. You may have even said: “That’s not for me; only for religious people.”Could it be because you’ve not looked at Christmas as good news?

Consider where Jesus was born.  Bethlehem is a humble place, a bedroom community of Jerusalem.  We are told of its modesty in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Today, Bethlehem is small and relatively dirty.  There’s not much is taking place there.  But God often uses the small and insignificant to prove His incredible power.

The fact that Jesus was born in a manger would be a sign for the shepherds.  Why this sign?  Because not many babies are born in a manger.  A manger was a feed trough.  It was not a place to lay a child.  But because the accommodations were not afforded Joseph and Mary, they were born where cattle are kept.  This sign would be another indication of the humility of Christ coming to our world and identifying with us.

Consider Christmas in other parts of the world.  Hear this from Alta Mene, a young man from Albania.  He stated: “While there were many Communist countries surrounding us during the time of the Cold War, were unique.  We were the only one to declare publicly our country to be atheist.  We did so in 1971 under our leader Enver Hoxha.  He told us that Islam had been the religion of the Turkish occupier.  Orthodoxy was the religion of the Greeks, and Catholicism was the religion of the Italian invaders and Austrian imperialism.  It was better just to be Albanian, which he meant to be without any religion.

He did many other things in our country.  Besides declaring our nation to be atheist, he closed our borders.  As a result of his policies, my country became very isolated from other nations.  Nobody could enter or leave.

My father saw the effects of Enver Hoxha’s reign on the Christian community.  He witnessed many attacks on the church.  For example, as a ten year old, he witnessed the destruction of a Catholic Church in the city of Lac.  The local Communist party leader led a group of 200-300 people armed with sledgehammers to demolish the large Church there.  The leader whipped people into a frenzy, invoking nationalistic feelings leading to the destruction of the building.  My father heard stories from this time that some in the crowd were scared.  Others felt that the icons within the church were even shedding tears.  It was a sad memory for him.

My father served as a captain in the Albanian army.  His responsibility was to protect the borders of Albania.  His specific job was to listen for broadcasts indicating an American invasion.

While on duty listening to radio communications, my father came to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Instead of paying attention to possible American messages about an invasion of Albania, he decided to listen to a radio broadcast from Trans World Radio.  This organization transmits the Christian message by radio into countries where it might otherwise not be heard.  The broadcast to which he was listening came from Monaco, a small country near Italy.

His decision to listen to this broadcast instead of doing his military duty could have put our family in great danger.  If my father had been caught listening to the TWR message, he could have been thrown into prison or he could have lost his life.  He was not caught, however, and after listening to several broadcasts, he eventually put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  This changed our entire family’s life and also the Christian community.

During the reign of Enver Hoxha, we could not celebrate Christmas publicly.  The government wanted all celebrations to be on the New Year.  For example, we did not have Christmas trees.  Instead, they were called New Year’s trees.

People were encouraged to gather with their families at New Year and have a family meal.  The government even doubled the meat ration for that week.  Christians, however, still celebrated Christmas.  We did so secretly with a family meal.

Now that Communist times are over, Christmas is a time of great celebration in the church in Albania.  On December 24, our entire church gathers for feasting, music, and dancing.  The following morning we have a worship service.  In the afternoon on Christmas Day, there is a time to spend with family.

God called the shepherds years ago.  They brought their sheep and lambs to Jesus and it reminds me of how the small and humble person can come and know Jesus.  When God acts and calls His people they will come, no matter what man may say.  For years our country refused God, but His call is stronger still!” [1]


[1] Drake Williams, Joy of the World, 45-48.

A Series of Gifts: Forgiveness

The following message is based on Matthew 1:18-25 which tells us of the angel’s message to Joseph.  It was delivered on December 2, 2012.

Christmas is the season of giving.  Some gifts are those we find in a department store, in a catalog or online.  Others are such that a pricetag cannot be placed upon them.  Consider the following story.

Louis Pasteur, the pioneer of immunology, lived at a time when thousands of people died each year of rabies.  Pasteur had worked for years on a vaccine.  Just as he was about to begin experimenting on himself, a nine-year-old, Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog.  The boy’s mother begged Pasteur to experiment on her son. Pasteur injected Joseph for ten days- and the boy lived.

Decades later, of all the things Pasteur could have had etched on his headstone, he asked for three words: JOSEPH MEISTER LIVED.  For Pasteur, it was just one physical life, who by the way, ended up dying of something else eventually.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, millions will be able to live eternally through faith in Him.

The highest honor of any believer is to bear the title: “Christian”, because it recalls the One who laid down his life for us.  But it is not just a name.  It is a name associated with a deed.  It speaks of what Jesus did for you and me.  Although much of America and the western world equates Christmas with materialism, I would like for us to consider the spiritual blessing we who are Christians have because of Jesus and His coming.  The one gift that I would like to elaborate on is forgiveness.  For that, we turn to Matthew chapter one.

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATES THE GIFT OF JESUS.

Matthew 1 gives us the scene of Joseph, a righteous man, engaged to Mary.  Both are from the village of Nazareth.  Notice that verse 18 states: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

The fact that Mary was pregnant and was probably beginning to “show” should have bothered Joseph.  He was betrothed to Mary.  He was considered to be “her husband (verse 19).”  And yet, there was only one thing he could assume: Mary had been unfaithful.

Jewish betrothal was something serious.  The only way a betrothal could be disestablished was divorce.  To proceed with the marriage, would have meant Joseph was immoral.  To divorce Mary openly would have subjected her to shame, ridicule, and in the most extreme cases, possible death by stoning.  But Joseph was just and merciful.  He sought to do the most inconspicuous of things.  The Scripture says in verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

The birth of Jesus tells us that at the heart of Christianity is a belief in the miraculous, that God can do the impossible.  It is truly supernatural that one could be born not from two parents, but through the power of God wrought upon a young woman of just 15 years of age.  That is the definition of a miracle: the author of creation intercepting the natural order to perform something that is truly supernatural. How did this happen?  It is unexplainable, as other miracles are.

And yet, it was something that was foretold nearly 700 years before Jesus came.  The prophet Isaiah foretold of a virgin that would bear a child.  His name would be Immanuel.  It took the angel to relate this to the skittish Joseph, as he told of the special circumstances surrounding our Lord’s birth.  Then he gave the reason:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”  What we have in verse 22 is a fulfillment formula that Matthew uses 12 times, to specifically state that the life of Christ fulfills what God promised hundreds of years before.

The virgin birth is more than just a theological tenet.  Rather it speaks of God who came to us as one of us.  I’ve heard it said that Jesus was the missionary “par excellence.”  All missionaries leave their home country, travel to a distant land, learn the language and the customs of its citizens before they start to minister to the people and spread their message.  Jesus set the standard of such activity, when He left throne in heaven and came to dwell among us.  Paul wrote in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus: “…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!”

What is your response to such a gesture?  Does it inspire you?  Does it humble you?  The fact that God became one of us, to minister to us- does that not do something for you?  Is that not a loving thing to do?

CHRISTMAS ALSO CELEBRATES THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS.

Notice how the angel instructed Joseph to name Mary’s son.  Matthew 1:21 “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”  The meaning of Jesus’ name ties into His ultimate mission.  The meaning of that term is Savior.[1]  Jesus’ name is a Greek equivalent to the Hebrew name: “Joshua.”  Although many were called “Joshua,” which means “The Lord saves,” only Jesus was given the name with an Old Testament reference to Psalm 130:8: “And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” There is deep significance in the name “Jesus.”  Listen to what D.A. Carson says about the name of Jesus.  “It was no doubt divine grace that solicited Mary’s cooperation before the conception and Joseph’s cooperation only after it.  Here Joseph is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation.  Mary was told Jesus’ name (Luke 1:31); but Joseph was told both name and reason for it.”[2]

The reason for His name is given by the angel: “…for He will save His people from their sins.”  The Greek term is swzw which is put in the future form and means: “to preserve from eternal death and judgment.[3]  This is reiterated by Jesus Himself in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which is lost.”  And 1 Timothy 1:15: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

When we read what the Bible says about being “saved” we are to understand as a comprehensive process based on Jesus’ miraculous mission.  It involves a person recognizing the moral mistakes they’ve made in their lives; that such things have offended God, recognizing that Jesus came in order that we might be forgiven of those offenses and that by turning from our sin and placing our trust in Him, we are reconciled to God.  This is what the Bible means by being saved.

This is God’s plan for your life.  The Barna Research group revealed the results of a survey several years ago that found that 46% of all men and 40% of all women are still hunting for life’s plan.  Could it be that we are hunting and searching, for a needle in a haystack, while God has made it plain to us through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ?

The following is a testimony from one of Dr. Drake’s students from China, Keran Wang.  She writes: “I grew up in China without hearing about the Christian faith.  China has been influenced by Confucianism for centuries, and it still exerts influence today. This way of thinking has nothing to say about sin, wrong, or evil.  For the Confucians, each person is created good.  Someone becomes bad or evil only when that one comes into contact with evil things, but education in virtue can prevent evil.   Good education in virtue will create genuinely good people, and then in turn this will make a good society.”

“Confucian teachings, however, are not the only beliefs within China.  Communism now also exerts influence throughout my home country.  Communism encourages people to devote their lives to the state.  Christianity gets in the way.  Because Communists are fearful of the Christian influence in China, they try to control it.  Christians are advised to go to state registered churches, while other churches have to hide themselves to avoid possible persecution.”

“I became a Christian when I moved to the Netherlands.  At Christmas time in 2003 I realized that I needed Jesus as my Savior.  While I had been taught many other ways to believe throughout my life, I came to realize that my wrongdoing could not be excused by education or overcome by devotion to the state.  Instead, I needed to have my sins wiped away by Jesus.  He was the only one who could forgive me and grant me life.”[4]

Each one of us must know that forgiveness and transformation is found in a person- that person is Jesus.  It is not a philosophy or an ideology.  Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we could receive but it takes a formal reception, which is asking Christ to rule and reign in your life, turning from sin and seeking His forgiveness.


[1] New Geneva Study Bible, 1506.

[2] D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: “Matthew,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 75.

[3] BAGD, 798c.

[4] Drake Williams, Joy of the World:31 International Christmas Devotionals, 8-11.