Sunday, September 7, 2014

Red as Crimson, White as Snow: A Sermon on Isaiah 1

Sermon on Isaiah 1 (specifically, Isaiah 1:1-3, 11-12, 15-18, 25-27); Hebrews 9:11-14.  Delivered 7 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The first installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

Sometimes, I've wondered what it would be like to live in the world of the Old Testament prophets, or even to be one of those prophets.  When you picture a prophet in Old Testament times, what images go through your head?  For me, I often think of a John-the-Baptist type of figure: someone hairy, wild, unwashed, untamed.  Dressed in strange clothes, saying strange words, doing strange things.  Spending months in the deserts, coming back to scream fire-and-brimstone in the streets to a people unwilling to listen.  Always coming from the outside, from the fields or the hills, called to criticize the constant wrongdoing of the kings and queens, the city-dwellers, the large landowners.  Hated, disliked men that the 'respectable' worldly people wanted to avoid.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were like that.  But Isaiah didn't quite fit that mold.  The ancient rabbis had a tradition that his father Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah – and if that's true, then Isaiah was King Uzziah's cousin, and an elder relative of the next three kings during whose reigns Isaiah ministered.  The first twenty years of Isaiah's ministry in Judah overlapped with Hosea's ministry in Israel, and Micah's forty-year ministry all took place while Isaiah was still at work.  But while Micah was from the little country village of Moresheth-Gath, Isaiah lived in the capital city, in the palace, in the halls of power – the prophet-chaplain to the king's court.  Second Chronicles 36:22 suggests that Isaiah may have served as an official royal historian and scribe.

Isaiah stands among the other prophets as proof that God doesn't call just one kind of person.  He calls both the 'simple' and the educated; he calls both the poor and the rich; he calls both the country-folk and the city-slickers; and he uses both the young'uns and the elders.  The Old Testament prophets remind us of Jesus' mixed choices of apostles – both a handful of simple fishermen and a trained scribe; both a former tax-collector and a former terrorist; both country-dwellers and, eventually, a man trained in Jerusalem in the leading rabbinic 'seminary' of his times.  The gospel is preached by all sorts, because the gospel is for all sorts, and it stretches people of every personality and opinion to be open to the parts that are bigger than them, bigger than us.  We most fully embody the gospel when we work together as a diverse church – not all brain, not all heart, not all hands, not all ear or eye or mouth, but a whole body filled with all its functions, all Christ's gifts and graces.

The same is true in the prophets who ministered under the Old Covenant and foreshadowed the New.  And although each of those prophets has a message that, in ways we may never expect, points forward to the gospel, Isaiah is in a way the king of them all.  The Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called "the Fifth Gospel".  The church father Jerome called Isaiah "more of an Evangelist than a Prophet".  There's a reason the New Testament writers loved to quote and reference Isaiah when they preached.  Many prophets foreshadowed Jesus in one respect or another, but Isaiah's preaching is saturated in Jesus from angle after angle.  The first five chapters serve as an introduction to most or all of the themes of the whole book of Isaiah – and what a set of themes they are!

Here, Isaiah paints a sketch – small compared to the grand masterpieces drawn cosmically large later in his collection of oracles and visions – of a rebellious Judah, a nation gone wrong.  The chosen people of God have a collective bout of amnesia as to where they came from.  They became a nation by the grace of God, who rescued them from Egypt, who tended them in the desert, who raised them in the Holy Land as his own children – but now the chosen nation as a whole, God's own children, are too idol-frenzied to even remember which God is really theirs.

In our day, it's easy to point the finger at a secularized America outside our walls and say, "You were a nation appointed by God, who gave you prosperity in the New World, who shepherded you through the Revolution, who safeguarded your 'unalienable rights', who set you free to be a light to the nations, who made you strong and victorious over all the nations of the earth – but now you, you out there, have forgotten God."  Some of this is true, both the good and the bad, but we must not forget who really are the 'nation whose God is the Lord' - that is, the church – and who really is the Light to the Nations, and who really rules a victorious kingdom over all the nations – that is, Jesus Christ.

But more than that, pointing fingers of blame is easy, with our wrists and elbows straight.  It's safe when they only point away.  But that isn't the good news of Jesus; it's the bad news of the Pharisees.  When fingers are pointed, gospel humility means that wrists and elbows always start bent – so that the finger points first at ourselves, acknowledging the planks in our eyes before we speak a word about the sawdust in anyone else's.

America has been blessed, truly and greatly and beautifully blessed, but the church has been spiritually chosen.  In the church – not just this congregation, but the church, the whole church - do we remember the grace of God, who rescued us from the 'Egypt' of our sins, who tends us in our present roaming through this worldly wilderness, and who made us his own children and will reveal us as such when he raises us from the dead in the Holy Land of the whole new creation?  Or do our modern idols – our work, our leisure, our pleasure, our money, our success, our social status, our independence, our privacy, our personal opinions – crowd out the God of grace?

Isaiah has those very concerns.  The ox knows who owns it, and the donkey knows who manages it, but does the church know the God who adopted his children?  Through Isaiah, God poses a biting challenge.  It's easy, in a so-called Christian land, to let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship.  We might assume that "going to church" is just one part of life, a compartment all its own, unrelated to how we treat our neighbors, our families, our bosses, our employees.

Judah had the same problem.  That's why God had to remind her that her whole multitude of sacrifices were pointless if they came from a divided, compartmentalized heart.  It isn't in the mere physical blood of sacrificial bulls and lambs and goats that God was pleased; it was in the heart of repentance and justice and faithful love that those sacrifices were supposed to reflect.  The bloody sacrifices were just the outward vessel, a symbol of their inner meaning – but without a wholesale commitment to God and to righteousness, they rang hollow, because they were hollow.  Outward piety became just perfunctory.  Today, we lift up a sacrifice of praise, and make ourselves living sacrifices – but if our heart is divided, if we compartmentalize godliness to an hour or two on Sunday mornings, then our words and our lives are also hollow.  And if we run to and fro with hollow lives, then all our worship is just "trampling God's courts".

But God offered Judah a radical and reasonable offer – reasonable, because God stoops to dialogue with his wayward people, to help them think clearly and rightly so that their lives can be shaped by the Divine Reason who the Gospel of John tells us was with God in the beginning, and whom we know as Jesus Christ.  But the offer is also radical, because it is an invitation to repentance.  And repentance is a radical thing.  For people as far astray as Judah was then, it was no less than an about-face, a trade of all that they actually were for all that they were supposed to be.

God called Judah – and he calls us today, when we sin – to "stop doing wrong" and instead "learn to do right".  We should minister in justice to a needy world around us, defending the oppressed, all those pushed to the margins by the systems of society.  Isaiah's words point forward to the true washing from sin, and the true righteousness of God: Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the one who truly "settles the matter".  Our sins were like scarlet, they were red as crimson – bold, unseemly, visible to God and others.  They were vivid stains, blots on our lives.  But through Jesus, God fought our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness.  Here in Christ, God is fully pleased: all the many bulls and lambs and goats give way to the one Son of God, the Wisdom of God, who makes his people understand.

Christ Jesus purges all our dross, everything unworthy in us – the process of sanctification, making us holy.  Again and again, he restores his church from its confused and wayward and distracted state.  He calls us back to repentance, back to holiness, back to revival.  The idols fall, and the church stands upon its one foundation: Jesus Christ, her Lord.  The church stands as Zion, the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, pointing forward to when she is fully unveiled as the New Jerusalem, dressed as a spotless bride for her Divine Bridegroom, eager with intense longing for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus.  We can repent – we must repent – and turn back to him.  We must remember the grace of God, and that we did not earn it through our lifestyle or our worship.  God offers his costly grace to all, though not all receive it.  He offers his grace to adulterers like David, to murderers like Moses, to cowards like Simon Peter, to persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, to terrorists like Simon the Zealot and like the two convicted terrorists between whom our Savior died – and, yes, even to us.  All equally, thoroughly, desperately in need of Jesus.

But this grace of God did not leave them as adulterers, murderers, cowards, persecutors, or terrorists.  No, no, it sought and found them where they were and led them out of their sinful pasts into the hope of glory.  And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words.  This grace lays claim to all of these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.  Grace is freely given, grace greater than all our sinful stains – but how?  The hymnwriter Robert Lowry said it best (Gospel Music [1877], no. 7):
What can wash away [our] stain?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make [us] whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
Nothing can for sin atone – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that [we] have done – Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
This is all [our] hope and peace – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all [our] righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes [us] white as snow,
No other fount [we] know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

To the Law and the Testimony!

Sermon on Isaiah 8:16-20; Zechariah 7:9-13; and Acts 17:1-4, 10-12.  Delivered 24 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God given to show us, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, our sinful condition before God.  It likewise shows us the way of salvation and provides the instruction we need to develop spiritually and to walk acceptably before God in the new path of faith.  [...]  These Scriptures, given by Divine inspiration, contain the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein nor can be proved thereby is not to be enjoined on any as an article of faith. (Discipline 142.1.2; 104)
So says the Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church.  And while any brief summary like this always has to oversimplify things, this is what we believe.  What we have in the Bible is absolutely amazing.  Here, in the form of many kinds of literature written over the course of over a thousand years, is a sweeping explanation of the history of the universe, from creation to new creation.  It tells, explains, and advises us as we live through the story of God's holy love for a sinful people in a fallen world, and how God conquers all the principalities and powers that try to woo us away from him – including the corruption in our own hearts.  This story is the Truth, because it climaxes in the One who proved himself to be the Way for wayward sinners, the Truth for a muddled world, and the Life to revive our dryness and our death.  That story told by the Bible defines our reality, whether we humbly accept it or pridefully write our own stories – and so, for Christians, it sets the proper context for our lives.

As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who fully affirmed and praised the scriptures of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets – and showed how they pointed to him, how he was so deeply woven into their fabric at every point – so deeply woven that the Pharisees, for missing him there, might as well have been unfamiliar with the whole thing.  As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who established the New Covenant in his blood and whose earliest followers testified in writing of what he himself had taught them and was still teaching through them in their ministries.  If we are unwilling to let ourselves be shaped by the whole story, then we risk still holding something back from Christ's claim as Lord, his determination to have every inch of us all to himself.  Our beliefs, our attitudes, and our worldview need to be shaped by the Bible, by God's revelation and message, which bears witness to what he has done and how he will bring his good work to completion on the Day that is to come.

In our culture today, we are often surrounded by groups that insist the Bible is to be judged, or at least interpreted, only in terms of their own spiritual experiences or life experiences.  We all know, for instance, of the Mormons, who usually place a premium on 'personal revelation' as effectively superseding whatever the biblical text says – unless it happens to agree with what they already think.  And I've lost track of how many professing Christians, when confronted with something in the Bible that they don't immediately understand or like, I've heard say something like, "Well, so what?  Don't you know that this is 2014?  That may be true for you, but my experience in life says different."  They – and sometimes we – judge the Bible in terms of how well it conforms to their own attitudes, their own personal opinions about God, their own cultural background or desires or ethical preferences or agendas borne from their own experiences.  Contrast this to the attitude of Charles Wesley, who reflected on Isaiah 8:20 in these lyrics (Poetical Works 9:380):
Doctrines, experiences to try,
We to the sacred standard fly,
Assured the Spirit of our Lord
Can never contradict His word:
Whate'er His Spirit speaks in me,
Must with the written word agree;
If not – I cast it all aside,
As Satan's voice, or nature's pride.
Charles Wesley was right to judge all things by the Scriptures – understood rightly and truly, of course.  Sadly, we are also often surrounded by groups and people who insist that the Bible must surely agree with their ideas, and so they – and sometimes we – go hunting around in the Bible for ways to support those ideas, and then ignore or twist the rest.  These groups – like Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance – often insist that they are being faithful to what the Bible means on its own terms.  They – and sometimes we – give great lipservice to the authority of the Bible, and if my friendship with a number of Jehovah's Witnesses has taught me anything, it's that they believe themselves to sincerely mean it.  But still the agenda is that of their pet theology, working through a smattering of out-of-context verses and a modern mindset, rather than the authentic 'agenda' of God as he inspired the biblical writers.

God calls us to reject both of these approaches, although even the most sincere and dedicated Christians often stumble into forms of both from time to time.  God calls us to first read the Bible responsibly – and then to take him at his word.  This means using our heads and our hearts, and learning what we can about the way the scriptures fit together and respond to their original settings and now, through that, ours; and it means reading the Bible together, bringing all our gifts and graces to the table.  John Wesley once wrote (Works [1812] 12:230, 233):
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to a heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  [...]  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
Amen and amen!  If I had to quibble with any of it, I'd clarify that 'literal' here should cover all the different ways the Bible communicates in styles of literature – some of which are relatively straightforward narrative, and some of which aren't.  But even Wesley is very clear: we must stick to the clear meaning of the text, as clarified and taken in connection with the context – the context of the passage, of the book, of the time and place and culture where it was written, and of the Bible as a whole.  And once we do that, and once we take into account how it might speak from that setting to our sometimes-the-same, sometimes-different world today, what is equally clear is this: we must "keep close" to it, we must test all things by it, we must rely on it as the word of our God, to be trusted faithfully and obeyed diligently, just as the Berean Jews did in Acts 17 in testing even a true apostle of Jesus Christ against it.

Rather than turn aside to other authorities, we do celebrate all truth that anyone can teach us – whether scientific, philosophical, religious, historical, ethical, cultural, or whatever – but we recognize it in the light of the Bible as properly understood in context by the living witness of the whole Christian church and through the devoted and heartfelt study that marks the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is the standard, and we are called to cling to it, unlike the sinful people of Zechariah 7 who stubbornly refused to heed the Law or the Prophets – both of which were given by God to instruct them – and to instruct us, alongside their fulfillment in the New Covenant scriptures.

As Isaiah 8 shows us, we aren't to run aside after mediums, psychics, fortune-tellers, horoscope-mongers, spiritualists, gurus, or any other false God-alternative; we are called to stick to God's word of instruction, God's commandments, God's design for human flourishing, and God's testimony to what he has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the whole Body united to their living Head by the bonds of the Spirit he has poured in our hearts.  Thanks be to God for entrusting his sacred word to his people, and for giving us the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can read it together and put these words into practice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Treasure of the Church

Sermon on Proverbs 14:31; Mark 10:17-21; and 2 Corinthians 8:9-12.  Delivered 10 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  

It was the middle of the third century.  Those were the days of persecution under Valerian, the emperor of Rome.  The church in Rome, although they had accumulated some wealth, lived in fear – and with good reason.  When Valerian came to power in the year 253, the emperor Decius, who oversaw one of the most ruthless persecutions of Christians in all of history up until then, had been dead only two years.

This was a powerful age of Christian charity.  Church leaders could count on wealthy Christian families to work together where it was needed.  When people were taken captive in a massive raid, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, was able to put together a large amount of money – the equivalent of thousands of dollars – to ransom them back.  And in Rome alone, the church provided charity to over fifteen hundred people in poverty due to disabilities or illness.  Valerian's advisors convinced him that the church's wealth made it a powerful danger.  They thought that maybe the economy was so weak because Christians were hoarding all the money to themselves.  

So in the year 257, Valerian suddenly gave orders to the Senate that all Christian bishops, pastors, and deacons had only two options: to worship the Roman gods in addition to Jesus, or to be sent away into exile.  The orders also tried to ban Christians from meeting in their usual places.  Some Christian leaders suffered greatly, being whipped, chained, and forced to work long hours in the mines in bad conditions.  But still the Christians praised Jesus.  Still the Christians committed themselves to helping others.  Still the Christians prayed for the leaders who persecuted them.

A year later, in the summer of the year 258, Valerian gave a harsher set of orders.  Bishops, pastors, and deacons were to be immediately executed.  High-class Roman Christians would lose their rank and have all their wealth taken away – and if they continued to be loyal to Christ, they too would be put to death.  The emperor and his minions meant business.  In Rome, bishop Sixtus and some other church leaders were seized during a worship service and put to death on August 6, just over a month before Cyprian was beheaded in Carthage, with his only answer at trial being, "Thanks be to God!"

Before Sixtus died, he gave instructions to one of his surviving deacons, a man named Lawrence.  Lawrence, as the last living deacon, was a steward of the church.  He was the church treasurer, and his task was to ensure that the church funds were handled well and put to godly use.  He took every last bit of it and traveled through the city of Rome, finding the people who depended most on the church's charity.  And he gave them alms until nothing was left.

No more than a day after his mentor Sixtus had died, Lawrence received a visit from Rome's prefect, the city administrator.  This prefect demanded that Lawrence turn over everything valuable that the church had.  The prefect tried to manipulate Lawrence, pointing out that gold didn't bear the image of God and so wasn't essential to what Lawrence believed.  Lawrence assured the prefect that the church was far richer than he had ever imagined – even richer than the emperor himself.  All he asked was for three days to get everything in order.  And the greedy prefect, eagerly imagining a horde of loot, waited.

When the three days were up, Lawrence and the prefect walked together to the church building.  I imagine that the prefect's anticipation rose with every step - and dropped as soon as Lawrence gave the order for the doors to be opened and shouted, "Behold, the treasure of the church!"  There in the sanctuary stood the most vulnerable of the Roman poor.  The disabled, the blind, the deaf, the amputees, the lepers – all the people, over fifteen hundred of them, who had depended on the church to live, as the church lived out what Jesus taught.

"Look," said Lawrence, "here they are.  This is the treasure of the church."  This was a kingdom investment, worth far more than gold.  The prefect had been right: Gold coins bore the image of Caesar, not the image of God.  But the image of God is a far, far better treasure than the image of Caesar.  The truth of the gospel, made flesh in human lives, is vastly more valuable than the contents of any bank account.  As one Christian poet put it, "Indeed the gold that brighter shines / is light enlightening all mankind".  Any coins that Lawrence might have turned over would one day rust away or depreciate.  But these lives, these precious lives, had a significance that would outlive empires.  They were the real treasure.

The prefect was not amused, and Lawrence paid with his mortal life.  Today, I don't know that prefect's name.  But I do know the name of Lawrence, a martyr for Christ's poor.  I do know that the rightful treasure of the church cannot be measured by the digits behind a dollar sign, or by the beautiful stained glass in our windows, or by the furnishings of our buildings; but the treasure of the church can be measured by where our dollar signs go.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the beauty of the feet on the mountains of they who bring good news that our God reigns and the hands that bring healing to the broken.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the way we furnish our lives with love made real in action.

The prefect was wrong.  He cared about economic domination.  Lawrence had no interest in serving Mammon.  The church of Lawrence's time knew the best financial advice that John Wesley ever gave: "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can"!  That wasn't just Lawrence's personal philosophy.  It was the heart of the church.  The church didn't demonize money or the rich – so long as they stayed where they belong: in the service of God's will, in the service of "the least of these".

What and where is our treasure?  Is it in our wallets and in our houses and in our TVs and cars?  Or is it in food on the table of the hungry, and assurance in the hearts of those in debt, and open skies of freedom over the heads of prisoners?  Is our treasure stored in the bank, or the food bank?  I know that this church has its eye on its true treasure.  It's why we eagerly look for ways to serve our community.  It's why we take advantage of opportunities like Operation Christmas Child: to make a kingdom-investment in the happiness and education of children in need around the world.  Through giving, through prayer, through relationships, they become our treasure, and the poor right here in Salisbury Township also become our treasure.

Jesus Christ left heaven's treasury for our world of poverty.  Because we were "sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore", Jesus ready stood to save us, "full of pity, love and power".  He emptied himself, he humbled himself, he became poor to make us rich with the blessings of God.  This goes beyond the Ten Commandments.  Like Jesus told the rich young ruler, this gets to the heart of "Love the Lord thy God" – enough to take up a cross and follow him even into the jaws of death – and of "Love thy neighbor" – enough to give up everything, if Jesus asks, to serve the poor.  He may not ask us to give up everything, but I'm seldom surprised when he asks me to give up more than I'm comfortable with.  But we can trust Jesus when he assures us that, when we look back from a heavenly point-of-view on every loving act of surrender for the poor, it will be worth it.

The prefect couldn't see that.  His heart was too full of greed to catch a glimpse of the joy of the Lord.  And so he cursed Lawrence, whose heart was too full of joy to leave space for greed.  And through many agonies, handling each of them with grace, Lawrence, lover of the poor, passed into the joyous reward of the God who walked this earth as a poor, wayfaring stranger like us.  Lawrence traded time for eternity in the year 258, on the tenth day of August – 1756 years ago today.  Kingdoms have come and kingdoms have gone, but the kingdom of our God abides forever, served by a great cloud of witnesses – St. Lawrence included.  We share in his faith – the faith of our fathers.  Do we share in his heart?  We know what was the treasure of his church.  What is the treasure of this church?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Broken Cisterns and Living Waters

Sermon on Jeremiah 2:10-13 and John 4:7-14.  Delivered 27 July 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  (The first line or two did not get recorded.)

Like most of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah had to warn God's people about things they really should have known already. For instance, the people of ancient Judah should have known that God is “the fountain of living waters”. They should have known that there's no one else worth turning to, nothing else worth turning to. But instead, in Jeremiah's day, the people of Judah had chosen a trade. They took the glory of God, a glory he offered freely among their presence, and they considered it worth bartering away at the local flea market. They traded glory for shame. They traded truth for lies. They traded the uncreated for the created. They traded the divine for the mundane.

Paul picks up these same themes centuries later in Romans 1, where he talks about how Gentile humanity traded uncreated truth for man-made deception; and naturally they went on to trade God's design of human love for rebellious reversals of God's intention. They traded nature's clear witness to God's plan in exchange for voluntary blindness. They traded faithful struggle against our human brokenness in exchange for a defiant celebration of human sin. Paul focuses there on a fruit that most perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the root, and even today, the church has to constantly point back to God's design, reminding an unwilling people not to trade the godly struggle for the sinful surrender.

Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah focused in on that same root: the stubborn quest to barter God away for something of our own making. Jeremiah calls God the “fountain of living waters”: he continually flows, he never runs out, he is pure, he is the source for life. But the people of Judah traded him for “empty cisterns”, things that do not flow, things that do run out, things that are easily polluted, things that are no source at all. Judah didn't just find these; they made them themselves. They “hewed them out” personally. That is, the people of ancient Judah turned away from the uncreated God, and instead they created God-substitutes and focused on those to sustain them, to satisfy them, and to refresh them.

Now, it's easy to point the finger at ancient Judah. Prophets like Jeremiah see things so clearly. Prophets like Jeremiah – and apostles like Paul – tell it like it is, with no mincing of words, with no fuzziness to cloud what's at stake. They see exactly what is going on here. But Judah is not alone, and the Gentiles of Romans 1 are not alone. They may be extreme, but they're not alone. Idolatry in its various forms is a longstanding human problem, and as crazy as it is, it's an easy trap.

See, we often take things in our lives – some bad things, some decent things, even some wonderful things – and we turn them into God-substitutes. Even when we give lipservice to God, as I'm sure the people of Judah did, we look elsewhere when it comes to quenching our thirst and keeping us going. We may look to the work we do, the accomplishments of our minds and our hands. We may trust in our financial savings for security, thinking that if we just had a bit more in the bank, we'd have some breathing room to find peace. Or, maybe we rely on our social status in our community. We may look to our family and friends to satisfy us, or to other relationships in our lives. We may turn to our own passions and desires. We may turn to our 'tribe', our patriotic heritage as Americans. We may turn to our local, state, or federal government to sustain us, to satisfy us, and to refresh us.

Most of those things aren't bad in themselves – when we hold them loosely. But when we build an idol and cling tightly to its feet, we're in trouble. Because we are made in the image of the glorious true God, yet we sell ourselves into slavery to the images of non-gods. And we reflect what we worship. We reflect what we trust in. When we turn to the God who's a fountain of living waters, who bubbles forever with life, we become lively, we're restored to his image, we become what we were meant to be. When we turn to even the second-best thing, which reflects God imperfectly at best, then we pattern ourselves after a funhouse mirror that catches God at an angle. And instead of growing healthy, God-centered, more human, we become distorted, twisted, dehumanized.

All those other things we might trust – when we idolize them, we make them into broken cisterns. They aren't the fountain of living waters. Not all the wishful thinking in heaven and earth can make them that. Broken cisterns hold no water – at least, not for long. What puddles do form are brackish, teeming with parasites. Sipping from them poisons us from the inside-out. They're stagnant. And they will run dry.

Maybe we see them run dry tomorrow. Maybe it takes a week, maybe it takes months, maybe it takes years or even decades of running from cistern to cistern, trying desperately to satisfy ourselves. But one thing we can know for sure: in the Day of the Lord, when all this story gets wrapped up and becomes the prologue to the new creation, those cisterns will be dry as dust – every last one. They will not sustain life. God, the fountain of living waters, will clearly stand alone. The all-too-familiar “double evil” of turning from him and trusting other things will leave many people high and dry. Charles Wesley was struck by this passage from Jeremiah, so he turned it into a prayer (Poetical Works 10:3):

Ah! Lord, with late regret I own,
I have the double evil done,
Forsook the Spring of life and peace,
And toil'd for earthly happiness:
But what in them I sought with pain,
I could not from the creatures gain,
The cisterns which my folly hew'd
They would not hold one drop of good.

Now for my double sin I grieve,
Again the broken cisterns leave;
Again I after Thee would go,
And gasp Thy only love to know:
Fountain of true felicity,
Eternal God, spring up in me,
And fill'd with life, and love, and power,
My heart shall never wander more.

In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus meet a woman next to a cistern. In her life, she's hewn many broken cisterns, and now she's trapped in her defeat and in her brokenness. She's gone from husband to husband, and now to a man who's not her husband. She tries to deflect, but Jesus gently probes to the heart of her situation and brings it out of the darkness into the light. He points out that, no matter which cistern she tries, she'll always be thirsty. She'll always need to grasp after something new – unless she accepts living water from him. Jesus, God in the flesh, presents himself to this Samaritan woman as the fountain of living waters. He promises that if she takes the refreshment, the sustenance, and the satisfaction that he offers, she'll need nothing more.

Jesus offers the same to us. He offers the same to our friends and our neighbors. He offers the same to our state and our nation, if we'll listen. He offers the same living waters to Ukrainians and Russians, to Israelis and Palestinians, to dreamers of peace and to dealers of death – come to Jesus and find life, true life, healing life. Only he can offer living water to soothe every hurt, to quench every thirst. No other prophet or philosopher brings it, unless they point to Jesus. We can't wrestle it into our lives with the force of guns and tanks. We can't vote ourselves into it through democracy. We can't charge it to our credit cards. It takes humble faith: just go back to the one fountain, the only fountain.

Only Jesus offers these living waters: the presence of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, bubbling up forever fresh in human life. In the coming Day of the Lord, all cisterns will be dry as dust, but this fountain will not fail. This fountain will flow and flow eternally, suppling the river that runs from the throne of God and waters the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations. This fountain will sustain life eternally in the world to come. And Jesus offers it right now, today, to me and to you. The people of Judah turned away in a “double sin”, the pagan Gentiles traded their Creator for man-made idols, but we can cling to the fountain of living waters. We don't have to be anxious about trusting in that fountain. We don't have to keep up our exhausted sprint from cistern to cistern, lapping up a puddle here and a puddle there.

Come to the fountain! Drink deep! Jesus is the Fountain of God's Spirit, and if we cling to Jesus in faith, hope, and love, he promises that his Spirit will irrigate our lives, satisfy our deepest longings, refresh us when we wear out, and sustain us to live in the kingdom of God eternally. Praise God for a fountain like that! Praise God for such a Savior!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ambassadors of Another Kingdom

Homily on Luke 8:1; 13:29; Colossians 1:12-14; and 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.  Delivered 13 July 2014.  My first homily delivered as the assistant pastor of Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. 

Good morning, brothers and sisters. It's a delight to be here today to celebrate a new beginning.  And I can't think of a better place to start a first sermon than with the story of 'in the beginning': In the beginning, God was king.  God created and ruled everything in its pristine goodness.   God created humans in his image, for priestly service and kingly rule over the earth, to spread the worshipful order of the Temple of Eden over the whole land.  But we see in the story of King Adam and Queen Eve how they lost their way and settled for smaller lives.  They fell into rebellion against the God of Gods and King of Kings.  And through that familiar human demand to govern life on our terms instead of his, the whole creation fell short of the glory God had in store for it.

As their heirs, we became broken rebels.  We need to be reconciled to God, our rightful king.  And so, at the climax of God's long mission through Abraham's family, through Israel, through a remnant, God sent his very own Son.  He sent Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, to reconcile us back to him.  Reconciliation is no cheap or easy thing. Jesus, anointed with God's Spirit and preaching about God's kingship, was often despised and rejected as he preached the "good news of the kingdom of God".  His message led King Jesus to be crowned – with thorns. It led King Jesus to be enthroned – on a cross.

But now, praise God, King Jesus is a risen king!  Amen?   Earthly kingdoms rise and fall, worldly kings live and die, but King Jesus is an eternal king, and his kingship has no end!  King Jesus rules over his kingdom from God's own heavenly throne, where he's installed as prophet, priest, and king. And he invites us in Revelation 3:21: "To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne".

Those who follow only this King, and who seek first this Kingdom and God's righteousness, are the church: the people redeemed through their King's blood; the people called out of every tribe and tongue to be a holy people and a royal priesthood; the people built together as the one living temple of God's own Spirit; the people under God's kingship who live to show their living faith in their living King.   Through union with King Jesus, the church shares his inheritance and is a living glimpse of the new creation that God has promised.

No matter what nation claims their mortal birth or their residence, faithful Christians' highest allegiance is to this King, who calls us to serve our local and global neighbors in his name.   As our own Discipline declares, "under the New Covenant the 'nation whose God is the Lord' is the Church of Jesus Christ, with its member-citizens scattered throughout the nations of the world".  So wherever the people of King Jesus live, we have dual-citizenship, earthly and heavenly; and we're sent to our neighbors as ambassadors.

And so the local church is an embassy of God's kingly domain.  As an embassy of the kingdom, King Jesus calls us at Pequea EC Church to reach out to our communities with spiritual words and self-sacrificing love – the same way that Jesus himself exercises his own kingship.  We invite our neighbors in all our cities, our towns, our villages, and our countryside: "Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ!"  In this way, and through our public life of Christian faith, hope, and love, King Jesus wants to transform the many local communities through which we here are spread – and so are we made a sign pointing forward to God's new work of creation, which even now is bursting into the world.

And now here we are, gathered as God's people, to worship God in song and to witness to one another what God has done.  When we leave this place, we're sent out to worship God in loving our neighbors and to witness to them about what God has done in Jesus Christ – and is still doing today!   And then we come back together to repeat the rhythm, drawing strength from our spiritual communion with God and with one another.   This Sunday, that communion is represented physically in the bread and the cup.  Our King Jesus invites us into his presence, to his table, to eat with him the food that only he provides, because only he could pay the price.  He invites us here to worship God in thanksgiving, and to bear witness of Christ's death until he comes.  Our communion points back to the Last Supper and the cross, but it points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all who accept the invitation will sit down together as one reconciled family in the kingdom of God.

Until that glorious day, we pray, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven".   Until then, we pray, "Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus".  Until then, we point to Jesus, pleading with family and neighbors, friends and strangers, loved ones and enemies, and even the very institutions of our culture itself: "Lay down your arms!  You have sinned, but Christ has died!  What's more, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again!   So in him, be reconciled to God, and become disciples of the one true King".  That's our message and our mission.  Here at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church, I've already seen your love and faithfulness to our King and to his message and mission, and I'm thankful that he sent me here to join the Pequea embassy staff.  Together, as we partner together and with other believers, we will bring this message to our communities in word and in deed, and we will see the mighty work of God's Spirit as he reconciles Lancaster and Chester Counties to himself, one life at a time.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Brief Good Friday Homily, 2014

Homily on 1 John 4:9-11; 1 Peter 2:24-25; Philippians 2:5-8; and Ephesians 4:32--5:2 delivered at Evangelical Congregational Church Retirement Village, Myerstown, Pennsylvania, on 18 April 2014.  

I've always loved the hymn in Philippians 2.  It's so sweeping in its scope: eternity before the world, to the life of Jesus, to Good Friday, through Easter Sunday, to the very end of the whole story when the whole story of God and us gets wrapped up in a big Jesus-shaped bow.  I love the idea it starts with: Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped", or something to take advantage of.  Some schoalrs suggest a more nuanced sense: Jesus "did not consider equality with God to consist in grasping".

Paul knew that the Roman emperors wanted people to worship them, or more precisely the so-called 'gods' of the imperial family.  They wanted people to view them as "equal with God", and so they committed their lives to always grasping for more.  More money.  More power.  More public honor.  More domination of others.  More self-indulgence.  To a Roman eye, equality with God meant taking it all.

Things aren't that much different today, really.  We talk about "getting ahead in life", as if the best goal were to somewhat defeat everyone else.  We talk about "moving on to bigger and better things", as if the only way to live were "moving on up".  We talk about the American dream, a dream of at least getting and having something of our own, something to keep for ourselves, something to guard jealously and call 'mine'.  The heroes of American culture are people who live this way: celebrities who quest for more recognition; athletes who quest for more domination; businessmen who quest for more money; politicians who quest for more power and influence.  We dream of having it all, of winning it big.  And so, to an American eye, equality with God still means taking it all.

Jesus saw things differently.  We talk about "moving on to bigger and better things".  Jesus emptied himself and took on the outward appearance of a human servant - hardly 'bigger' or 'better' in the eyes of the world.  We talk about upward mobility.  Jesus lived out a gospel of downward mobility.  We dream of taking everything.  We think that, if we only had a big house or admirers or an overstuffed bank account or name recognition, we'd finally be fulfilled.  We dream about getting more and more, bigger and bigger.  Jesus made it a point to get less and less by giving it all away.  He set aside his heavenly glory, he emptied himself, he took on the form of a servant, and he walked faithfully in obedience to his Father - even when it led him to the lowest of low points, the point Romans called "the slave's punishment": death on a cross.

That's what we remember today.  Lots of people died on Roman crosses, but only one got there intentionally by walking away from outward displays of divine glory.  Only one went there voluntarily for us.  Being like God didn't mean what Rome thought, and it doesn't mean what most of America thinks, either.  Being like God doesn't mean taking.  Being like God means giving.  Being like God doesn't mean satisfying yourself.  Being like God means serving others in love, out of faithful obedience to the Father.  Being like God means the cross.  Take it from Jesus, who - unlike any Roman emperor or American celebrity - is the only one qualified to tell us what equality with God really means.  Because he didn't just tell; he showed.

By his life and by his death, he showed us love when we least deserved it.  We turned away from God.  We broke ourselves, we broke each other, we broke the world.  We lost the faith, we forgot the hope, we trampled the love underfoot.  That's what sin is.  We rebelled against the holy God who loves us.  But he never stopped loving us, not even at our worst.  He set in motion a plan to fix everything that went wrong.  He picked the family of Abraham to bless the rest; within them, he picked the people of Israel; within them, he picked the faithful remnant; and when the weight of sin proved too much for Israel to bear, it all came down to a one-man Remnant - the Word made flesh, the Son of God become the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the True Israelite, the Last Adam, who lived out the mission of God when no one else could or would.

And that mission led him to death on the cross.  It led him to the cross to defeat and unmask the worldly powers for the frauds they really are.  It led him to the cross to redeem Israel.  It led him to the cross to bless the nations.  It led him to the cross to unite Jew and Gentile into a new humanity, a new people of God to serve the world and live for the kingdom.  For the sake of our peace, God's mission led Jesus to a painful and shameful death on the cross.  It led him there because I sinned, because you sinned, because we all sinned, and we were faithless, hopeless, and loveless without him.  And he came to the rescue, he obeyed his Father, he died so that, by dying to ourselves in his death through faith, we could be freed from the law's claims over us - and we could have a new beginning in him.

But it came at such a cost, a cost greater than we may ever realize.  Jesus walked down the darkest of roads for us.  Out of love, the Creator let himself be broken by the broken creation.  Out of love, the Light of the world let our darkness engulf him.  Out of love, the eternal Word of God let himself be brought to silence.  Out of love, the Lamb of God went quietly to the slaughter.  Out of love, the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his lost sheep.  Over eighteen hundred years ago, a bishop named Melito preached a sermon on the Passover, and here's how he described the paradox of Jesus on the cross:
Hear and tremble because of him for whom the earth trembled:  The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged.  The one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled.  The one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree.  The Lord is insulted!  God is murdered!  ...  For this reason the stars turned and fled, and the day grew quite dark, to hide the naked person hanging on the tree - darkening, not the body of the Lord, but the eyes of men.  Even though the people didn't tremble, the earth trembled instead.  Although the people were not afraid, the heavens grew frightened.  Although the people didn't tear their garments, the angels tore theirs.  Although the people didn't lament, the Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice.
For us.  It was all for us, all for the forgiveness of our sins, and the breaking of sin's power over us and over our world!  Good Friday was a dark day, darker than any day before it and darker than any day after it.  But love suffered that day of darkness to bring us everlasting light.  Love accepted that cruel death in order to raise us up to eternal life.  Because even through Good Friday, death and darkness do not have the final word.  God shouted the ultimate word to the world on Easter Sunday: "Arise, shine, for your light has come!  Behold, I make all things new!"  But Christ's resurrection revives us because, on that old rugged cross, love suffered obediently, love paid the price, love fought for us, even at the greatest cost.

Will we live as people who have been bought with a price?  Will we love and forgive and welcome one another, just as God loved and forgave and welcomed us?  Will we be faithful and obedient to God, just as Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross?  Will we be imitators of Christ's humility and his sacrifice?  Will we reject the worldly ways that Jesus unmasked, and live according to God's wisdom instead?  Will we accept Jesus' invitation to come together and join in God's mission to rescue and restore the world?  Will we walk in the same Spirit that led Jesus to the cross, and through the cross to the resurrection?  We who believe have said yes to God, but only because first, all God's promises are 'Yes' in Jesus Christ, our Lord who died our souls to save, and our world to save, and creation to save.  Amen: come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Adoption Through the Word: A Sermon on John 1:1-14 for Before Advent

You know, today's a weird day. Last Sunday we celebrated a time of thanksgiving. Next Sunday we begin the season of Advent. Advent is when we remember the long time that the people of Israel had to wait and hope and wait and hope for the Messiah to finally come to rescue them, and we wait for him to come back to complete the work he started. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. But today isn't quite part of either season. Actually, it's Christ the King Sunday, the end of the Christian year. But since we're gearing up for Christmas now anyway, we might as well take a look at the Christmas story according to John. So hear the word of the Lord:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world didn't recognize him. He came to his own, but his own didn't receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who had faith in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born, not of natural descent or of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God! The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1-5, 9-14]

See, John's Christmas story is different. No manger, no shepherds, no angels, no star, no wise men. Not even a Joseph or a Mary! But did you see how it starts off? “In the beginning.” John starts where Genesis starts: at the first beginning of all beginnings, the creation of the whole universe. When John tells the story of Christmas, his Christmas isn't about one day a year. His Christmas isn't even just one season long. For John, the story of Christmas is wider than the entire universe and deeper than the depths of time itself!

And better yet, when John starts off at the beginning, he points back further, into timeless eternity 'before' creation. He points back to God alone. And what he finds there is this truth: “God is love”. Active love is the heart of who God always was, even before Genesis 1:1. God is love because the inside life of God was always a life of loving relationships. The inside life of God is a love between the Father and the Word, a love they together share with their Spirit. That insight into what God's inside life is like, is the teaching we call the doctrine of the Trinity: three distinct persons in relationship, who have always been and always will be just one God. That's what John is pointing us back to: the Word who was always with God the Father and who always belonged to the inside life of God.

John reminds us that in Genesis, God didn't have to build the world out of parts he found lying around. God created everything out of nothing – he did it by speaking, he did it by his Word. John says that there isn't anything in any universe that doesn't owe everything to the Word. God didn't need to create. It's not like he was lonely. He was filled with an eternal party of perfect love! But he created a masterpiece of art, designed to show off the glory of the God who made it. He created this universe because he was so full of life in himself that he wanted to create something to share it with. He created it out of love.

And then he made us to be his image in the world. That doesn't mean that we somehow looked like God; after all, God existed before there was space or time or matter. It means he made us to represent him to the rest of the world he'd made. God called us to rule the earth with care the way he would, to share his love the way he would. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we could become – all of that is God's gift. This was shaping up to be the happiest story ever.

But then we made it a sad story. The story tells us that, even though we should have been grateful for all God's free gifts, we wanted to take even more, and we wanted it on our terms, not his. That's still the attitude we have. We want to be in charge. We think we're enough like God that we can dictate our own rules to live by. That's called 'sin'. Sin is what ruined the big story in the first place. I mean, think about it. What happens when we confront the one who holds everything together, we look him square in the eye, and we tell him that we'd like him to just back off? We told the Way that he wasn't worth following. Is it any wonder we got lost? We told the Truth that he wasn't worth knowing. Is it any wonder we live in a world full of lies? We told the Life that he wasn't worth living up to. Is it any wonder that we get hurt and we suffer and we die? That's what sin does. That's what it means to damage the one relationship we were most made for. God gave us the entire world. And when we reached out for that tasty forbidden fruit, we let the world slip out of our hands. And it cracked.

The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that “everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one”. But the story doesn't stop there. It goes on when God picks a man of faith, names him Abraham, and tells him that his family will be a blessing to the whole world. When this people find themselves in slavery in a foreign country called Egypt, God reaches down, breaks their chains, and leads them into freedom. It's the story of the Exodus. But the Law God gives them becomes a spotlight to show just how big their sins really are. More often than not, God's chosen people were God's chosen problem. Eventually God had to let other nations lead them away into exile, because they wouldn't admit how wrong they'd gone. When they finally owned up to what they'd done, God brought them back and let them rebuild. But they still knew that they weren't free yet; they weren't truly home.

And then God did something awesome. Remember that Word who created the world? The Word full of life, the Word full of light? That same Word showed up in the world! The time had finally come. God dictated his own Autobiography to us as a human person. He pitched his tent at our campsite to be with us. Christmas came to town! That person, that 'God-with-us', was named Jesus – and he was the Chosen One, the Messiah, Christ the King. He came to show us what it looks like for a human life to match the love of God. He came to lead us in an exodus out of sin and into the promised land of new life. He came to bring us home from exile, back to the God we left.

He announced the kingdom of God. What that means is, God is finally taking charge of the situation in a new way, and he's doing it through Jesus. And because God is taking charge, it's time to give up on disobedience, time to give up on rebellion, time to give up on sin. And to deal with this sin, Jesus went to the worst death around: crucifixion. It was painful, it was bloody, it was designed to be humiliating and shameful.

Even while we were still treating God like an enemy, Jesus died on the cross for us. And then suddenly, his grave was empty. And Jesus started making visits of the kind that dead people just don't make. He visited people who believed in him already, and he even visited people who didn't – people like Paul and James. He convinced them all to spread the amazing news that God was fixing the world through what Jesus had just done. This was the story of a lifetime!

For most, it was an offensive story. Crucifixion couldn't be mentioned in polite company, so the idea of a crucified god from an obscure part of the empire wasn't exactly an easy sell. The message was a threat to everybody in power. If the story were a lie, stopping it would've been as easy as pointing to the body. They didn't, because they couldn't! So the followers of Jesus kept telling their true story. They knew the facts beyond a shadow of a doubt, and they gave up their comfort and even their lives to spread the good news: the Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who rose from the dead to rule the whole universe!

Without the cross, without the resurrection, Christmas is nothing. But with the cross, with the resurrection, Christmas is everything. The Word was the light that came into the world, like the dawning of a new day, a fresh start. He invited his own people to receive the Word, which means trusting the Word and obeying the Word. That's what it always meant in the Old Testament to 'receive the Word of the LORD'. So he invited them to receive and accept him that way. After all, “there's no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey”. But his own people said no, which they pronounced, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

But what about those who do receive the Word? What about those who trust this Word made flesh, this Jesus, and put all their eggs in his basket? What about those who obey the Word's message about the kingdom of God here among us now? John's answer is, they can become God's children. None of us start out as God's children, but we can become God's children.

See, the thing that's important to know here is that people in the ancient world believed that who you were – your personality, your value, your character, your status – those were all things that you were born with. You got them from your parents. They stayed the same throughout your life. Who you were born to be is who you were always going to be. If you were born on the wrong side of the tracks, you were destined to live on the wrong side of the tracks. And that's a problem for us, because even the great King David says in the Psalms that we're born broken, born to be sinners from the very get-go

But that's why it matters so much when Jesus offers the chance to be “born again”. If our goodness and our status and our value are all stuck at birth, then being born again means literally getting a clean slate. It means that everything we inherited, including our sinful ways and crooked start, can all be rewritten. This is a change so radical that the only thing Jesus can compare it to is being born a second time around. It's a fresh do-over. John is careful to say that it doesn't come from human parents. Our new life, our new identity, doesn't come from any other person on this earth. It comes from getting God as our new parent. That's the promised gift to everyone who really receives the Word by faith in Jesus Christ.

That's why Christmas is so important! The birth of the unique Son of God on earth was to offer us a new birth that comes from heaven. Think of the Christmas carol: “Mild he lays his glory by, / born that man no more may die, / born to raise the sons of earth, / born to give them second birth”. We can be born into a new life that will never, ever fade and never, ever end. We can become the sons and daughters of God. We can be adopted as part of God's family, joining Christ the King to receive the whole world as our inheritance from the God we can finally call 'Abba, Father'. This isn't something we can earn. You can't earn adoption. Adoption is an act of grace. All you can do is accept it in faith.

Think about this: some people are the sons and daughters of criminals, some people are the sons and daughters of farmers, some are the sons and daughters of business managers, some are the sons and daughters of presidents and prime ministers.... but we can be the sons and daughters of God! That's what Christmas is for. That's the point of the Christmas story! Christmas means that we can be born again. Christmas means that there is nothing in our past and present that can't be redeemed. Christmas means that we can join the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at the eternal Christmas party that's been going on since before creation. Because they're family now. And that's what Christmas is for.

But as we look forward to Advent this year, maybe there are some people here who have never received the Word. Maybe there are people here who aren't putting their faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work as the only thing that can give us all the blessings of God's family. If you're relying on anything else, any ritual or any good deed or any tradition, if you think there's any room for earning or meriting any part of this, that doesn't cut it. It's grace. And remember that faith isn't just a one-time thing. We can't just claim faith one time and then set it to the side. Faith is a continuous walk with God, a daily welcoming of the Word into our lives and surrendering to him. Now, I know we don't have the power to fully surrender on our own. We need the power of God's Holy Spirit to surrender, but Jesus wants to deck the halls of our hearts with that same Spirit. If we aren't living day-to-day by faith in Jesus Christ, if we aren't living through the power of his Spirit, then we aren't living as the children of God.

If that rings a little too true for you this year, I'm begging you: receive the Word, receive Christ the King. Become a child of God, and live as a child of God, a son or daughter who receives the Word into your life each day with open arms. Don't go through this Christmas season and miss the real power of Christmas to give you a slate as clean as the freshly fallen snow of a winter wonderland. Don't miss Christmas! We're going to have a time of prayer now. If there's anyone here who needs to receive the Word today – whether it's for the first time, or you just know you need God's grace to see how to live as child of God – I'd invite you to come forward so that we can pray with you and for you. There's always a place for you at God's altar here, and you can walk away with God's Christmas power changing your life, changing it into an everlasting time of thanksgiving to that one and only God who adopts us through his Word. Let's pray.