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Archive for the ‘New Testament’ Category

The other day a strange feeling came over me.

Don’t get me wrong about what I’m about to talk about here. I’m not claiming any powers of discernment or certainty.

I got the distinct feeling that there’s something wrong with a lot of people who say they are Jesus-followers/believers.

If you wan to supply your own vocabulary, like “aren’t saved” or “aren’t Christians,” do so at your own risk. I’m not saying that. (There’s other blogs for that, if you want to pursue that game).

No, but it was plain as daylight to me that when I hear a lot of people talk about Jesus, I feel like I’m hearing… an abridged version… an abbreviation if you will…

I said abbreviation. A shortened version of a real word. You see the abbreviation, you’re supposed to know what it means – yes, we all agree, we know what abbreviation means –

Don’t we?

We all know what the shorthanded version stands for.

Right?

Or perhaps, we don’t.

I’m beginning to think that when people say Jesus, the definition they mean can’t be trusted.

I’m getting the feeling that we’re talking about a kind of “mini-Jesus.” A diluted, declawed, demoted savior who is a symbolic representation for a kind of anemic, watered-down, unbiblical, culturally acceptable Jesus.

I get the feeling that if you move beyond the standard biographical paragraph, you’re going to discover that the Jesus you’re hearing about has considerably less to say than the Jesus as we meet him in the Gospels.

You’re going to discover that he has little or nothing to do with most of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and the more demanding parts of the New.

You’re going to discover that there’s a remarkable resemblance between the abbreviated Jesus and the current version of political correctness. (Isn’t it unusual how Jesus takes an interest in whatever happens to be the current rage of the mainstream media these days?)

I’m not sure this abbreviated Jesus believes in hell.

He seems considerably more flexible on sexual matters that one would believe reading the Bible.

Living together before marriage? The abbreviated Jesus seems to have not issued a statement on that one.

I actually think the abbreviated Jesus doesn’t like to be bothered with issues of morality, character, or behavior. He’s mostly interested in larger political and cultural issues, or your experience at your local church, or how you’re doing in your relationships.

The abbreviated Jesus has quite a bit in common with contemporary “life coaches,” talk show hosts, political apologists, faith-based advocates, teachers of “principles,” community organizers and family value lobbyists.

The people who talk about the abbreviated Jesus don’t seem to know much about the Bible. Not at all.

But they still have a surprisingly strong opinion about the meaning of all kinds of things Jesus said and did in the Bible.

The abbreviated Jesus can convincingly seem like the real Jesus, until you look and listen closely. Then it appears that he’s lost his laptop, his luggage, and his cell phone. So for right now, he’s reading it all off the teleprompter.

The abbreviated Jesus doesn’t vary much from the script.

In fact – and this is what really got my attention – the abbreviated Jesus would only get crucified if there were some terrible mix-up.

The abbreviated Jesus is Jesus without the Biblical context, Jesus without church history, Jesus without Jesus theology, Jesus without costly discipleship, Jesus without offensive teaching or mysterious parables. The abbreviated Jesus is so easily explained, so comprehensible and user-friendly that anyone can follow him, even without instructions.

In millions of cases, the abbreviated Jesus is Jesus without the church. He’s Jesus who lets your pick your friends, pick your community, and pick your comfortable seat. He’s OK with whatever your plans are for the weekend. He’s not making demands of your time. He’s a major spokesperson for unplugging the fourth commandment. He’s not making any demands on your money that don’t follow your emotions. He wants you to feel personally fulfilled about whatever you choose to support. The abbreviated Jesus seems to always need one more book to really get down to what he actually means.

He has a lot of preachers who understand him, and a lot of churches where his way of doing things has become very popular.

Aside from abortion and gay marriage, the abbreviated Jesus is pretty happy in America. There’s so much for his friends to do and enjoy!

I don’t trust this abbreviated Jesus.

Sometimes, he’s been in my house, my head, my heart, and my ministry. I don’t like him.

He’s flat. Empty. Easy. Moldable.

He’s not full of the Holy Spirit. He’s full of US.

Frankly, he’s seems to be full of … well, my daddy might use those words, but I’m not going to use them, especially in a blog. If you don’t know what they are, ask a farmer who knows the real Jesus what the abbreviated Jesus is full of…

I’m announcing that I’m afraid of the abbreviated Jesus and his followers. I’m afraid of his “church”, his books, and his kind of “discipleship”. I’m uninviting him from my life, and my interactions with other Christians.

I want to know Jesus. The untamed, old school, offensive, mysterious, demanding, awe-inspiring, transformational, life-altering, crucified, risen, ascended, revolutionary Jesus.

I’ll spell it out: He’s the Creator. The Mediator. The Fulfiller and Establisher of the Law. He’s the Passover lamb. He’s the Head of the Church. He’s the heart and key to the Holy Scripture. He’s the meal on the table. He’s the life in the living waters. He pours out the Holy Spirit. He’s the rider on the white horse. He’s the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords.

He is the Eternal God.

He doesn’t need my explanations, endorsements, or euphemisms. He isn’t reading my note cards and nodding. He doesn’t tolerate my sins. He’s the life of God for the sin of the world. He’s righteous, sanctification and holiness. He’s the Kingdom bringer, the executioner of judgment, the one who is worthy to open the scroll and read the books. He’s the light of Heaven and the conqueror of hell, death, sin, and the grave.

He’s the one in whom all history, poetry, story, and theology come together into the Great I AM. He’s the mystery and the Word that reveals God to all persons. He’s the Gospel itself, the meaning of every message and the open door of God’s mercy.

You can’t abbreviate him.

You fall at his feet and worship. You get up and follow. You die and he raises you on the last day.

That’s Jesus, and I have a feeling that a lot of people really don’t have a clue.

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The best way I think to understand The Ten Commandments is to look at them from the perspective given by the New Testament. And Galatians 5:4-5 is a good place to start to get this perspective. There the Apostle Paul writes: “But when the FULLNESS OF TIME came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law that we might receive adoption as sons.” Now I want you to focus in on that phrase, “…THE FULLNESS OF TIME …” In these four words I believe God used Paul to remind us that before Jesus would come into the world-which was God’s plan from the very beginning of time-before Jesus could come, something had to happen to sinful humanity to get us to the point where we could understand His coming. We had learn Who God is and who we are so that mankind could come to that level of maturity that would allow us to comprehend God’s love as expressed in sending Jesus. Think of humanity as a green “apple.” Well Jesus came into the world when we were red or “ripe.” He was born at the first possible moment that we could understand His coming.

Well this “ripening” process began with the scriptures recorded in Exodus 20. You see, Christianity did not come into the world without ROOTS and FOUNDATIONS. Remember in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “I am not come to destroy the law — but to FULFILL it.” In other words Jesus came to show the law’s true purpose. And the law that Jesus came to fulfill began with these ten basic principles for life.

So one purpose of the Ten Commandments was to prepare mankind for Jesus’ coming. In Galatians 3:24 Paul writes, “Therefore, the law has become OUR TUTOR to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” You know…in the Greek-speaking world of Paul’s day, there was a type of household servant called the paidagogos. This person was in charge of the child’s moral welfare; it was his duty to oversee the child’s character development. One of a paidagogos’ responsibilities was to take the child to school each day. He was not the child’s teacher, but he was responsible to see that the child was, in fact, under the teacher’s care. And in this New Testament text, Paul borrows this picture from his culture and says in effect, that the law has the same function. It is our “tutor” our “paidagogos.” So, the commandments in the Bible are designed not only to say, “Do this,” and “Don’t do that,” but to lead us to the person of God Himself. For as we attempt to obey God’s law we see both God’s holy perfection and our sin.

The law sheds a powerful light on our sinful state and leads us to realize how far we fall short.

Like a paidagogos the law leads us to “school” where we see our need for Christ.

Now, I want us to note a few other things about The Ten Commandments:

1. First of all, scanning through all 17 verses…all 10 laws…reveals that they fall into two sections.

The first four laws guide us in the way we relate to God…the way we revere, respect, and love Him. Glance at Exodus 20:1-17 and you’ll see what I mean: LAW #1 – God and God alone is God. LAW #2 – It is wrong to worship anything material as God. LAW #3 – God’s day is to be cherished and honored. LAW #4 – God’s name is not to be used recklessly.

And then the second section…the last six commandments….deal with how we are to treat each other…how we are to love, and respect each other. LAW #5 – Father and mother are to be honored. LAW #6 – Human life is sacred. LAW #7 – Sexual purity and fidelity is demanded. LAW #8 – The rights of property are to be observed. LAW #9 – False and slanderous speaking about others is condemned. LAW #10 – The desire to possess that which is not ours is branded as wrong.

Jesus was once asked which from this list was the greatest commandment. Do you remember His reply? In Matthew 22 He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself……All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” So Jesus taught that our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow man are intertwined. We can’t love and respect God properly if we don’t love and respect each other and we can’t love and respect each other properly if we don’t also love and respect God. Without the horizontal aspect of a proper relationship with our fellow man our religion…our faith…..would become a selfish impractical thing in which we are concerned with our own soul and our own vision of God and nothing more. And without the vertical principle of loving God we wouldn’t value each other enough we wouldn’t see ourselves as special creations of God. People would be looked at as things and not as persons. The Ten Commandments then teach us that we need both a proper horizontal relationship with each other and a proper vertical relationship with God. The next time you see the intersecting beams of Calvary’s cross let it remind you of this truth: We need to practice both LOVE FOR GOD and LOVE FOR OUR FELLOW MAN. You can’t have one without the other…Do you remember the words of I John 4:7-8 : “…everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know god, because God is love.”

2. The second thing we notice about these ten commands is that they are mostly written in the negative.

With the exception of the 4th and 5th commandments, they are all stated as “Thou shalt NOT” and even the 4th command which deals with the Sabbath…is largely expressed in the negative.

Now, why would God do this? Why so many “NOTS?” Well, look at the context. God has just called the people of Israel out of slavery.

So, they were far from being a nation. At this point, they were a mob of disorganized disorder and they needed order. They needed “NOTS!” Remember God was molding them….ripening them….maturing them…into a nation of priests to tell the world of His love. Any parent knows that one of the first words you teach your toddler is “NO”. They head for the electrical outlet or the hot stove and you say, “No! Don’t touch that!” Well at this point, the people of Israel were in the infant stage….they needed limitations…like all human infants they were prone to sin and they needed to learn their “NO-NO’s”…their “NOT’s”. They had spent hundreds of years living with a nation that worshiped many Gods…so they had to NOT do that anymore! They had spent generations among a pagan nation that did not respect human life…humans were property to be bought and sold so they had to learn NOT to think of people in that way. These commands of God DO have a stern quality about them but when you are warning a child not to go down a path which will lead to them being hurt or killed, you can’t get too stern!

While on vacation several summers ago we drove along Bear Tooth Pass for several hours. And we came to one stop where the road had been built right on the ridge of these mountains. On each side of the road were sheer drop-offs.

Now, what if you were on this path and came to one of these overlooks along this crest of the mountains and as soon as you decide to stop your three year old throws open his door, hops out and starts running excitedly toward the edge as fast as his chubby little legs will carry him.

Now, is this a time to whisper sweetly? Is this a time to be positive and say, “You are running great son! Wonderful form!”

NO! This would be one of those times when, as a parent, your heart would leap in your chest as you SHOUT as loud as you can, “STOP! RIGHT NOW!” or “THOU SHALT NOT RUN IN THAT DIRECTION!!!” In Ezekiel 33:11 God says, “As surely as I live . . .I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die O house of Israel?” Doesn’t that sound like a loving parent exclaiming, “Stop! Stop! Turn back! Don’t go that way! There is sorrow ahead! There is death around the corner! Come back to Me?” You see, the fact that these ten laws are so full of negatives is yet one more indication of God’s tender love for us…His tender care. They are indeed ten(der) commandments.

3. And then….a third thing we should note is that the 10 Commandments are much MORE than a body of detailed rules and regulations.

They don’t give us detailed rules for certain specific situations. They are far greater in scope than that, for they are actual principles to apply to every situation in life, even in the almost 21st century. These 17 verses are God’s divine standards which form the foundation for any moral society. You know some people say the Ten Commandments are out of date. Some time ago TED TURNER said as much and modestly offered to replace the Ten Commandments with his own version, which he called the “Ten Voluntary Initiatives.” And Mr. Turner is representative of many in our society who feel that God’s laws are now out of date…that we’ve outgrown them….and they are no longer necessary. But the truth of the matter is we have NOT outgrown…we have not out-distanced the Ten Commandments. In fact, we haven’t even caught up with them yet. You see, the Bible says the Ten Commandments were not only engraved on tablets of stone that would eventually crumble into dust. Romans 2:15 says, “…the requirements of the law are written on our hearts, our consciences bearing witness…” This means that deep down inside each human being even today…thousands of years after Moses met God on Mt. Sinai…..even today there is this inborn knowledge in all people that the Ten Commandments are true. They are not obsolete…they are absolute!

Turn now to Exodus 20 and read the first commandment. It’s found in verses 1-3: And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

Now notice the phrase in verse 2, “Who brought you out of Egypt.” These were a people who had been redeemed by God…freed by God…rescued from slavery by God. But God didn’t want them to be just a redeemed people….He also wanted them to be a righteous people so He gave them these laws and principles for righteous living. And the first step toward being a righteous people would have to be their belief in the ONE GOD…their worship of ONE GOD. You see God was forming a covenant relationship with them much like the relationship that is between husband and wife.

Do you married people remember your wedding ceremony? It probably contained some form of this phrase: “I take thee _ to be my wedded wife or husband…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and FORSAKING ALL OTHERS to cleave only to thee..as long as we both shall live.” Marital vows are a pledge to a lifetime of faithfulness….a lifetime of exclusiveness.

No man or woman in their right mind would allow the spouse to strike a bargain before the marriage by saying, “I’ll spend most of my time with you, but I want to enjoy intimate relationships with other people some of the time.”__ No…marriage represents a firm, exclusive commitment to each other by both husband and wife.

And God calls us to have a similar exclusive allegiance to Him. Later on in the Commandments God says He is a JEALOUS God. God refuses to share the glory and the worship that is due Him with anyone or anything else. We were created to have an intimate, exclusive walk with GOD AND GOD ALONE. And it was important for the Hebrew people to get this straight from the “get go” because this principle conflicted with the different views of deity held by the world of their day. The first view was POLYTHEISM…or….a belief in many gods. The Egyptians were polytheistic. They believed in a god of the sun and a god of the moon an a god of the sea and a god of the grocery story….etc. Their world was crammed-full of gods and goddesses competing for the gifts and the worship of men and women.

The second philosophy of deity was known as HENOTHEISM. Those who held this view would accept one god as their god and would worship no other. But they also believed that other nations had other gods. A god was “god” only in one territory. It was sort of like it is in professional sports….this area…this territory….is COWBOY territory…and a great distance north and east of here is REDSKINS territory. And you know….even today we are somewhat henothistic.

We say we worship God. We claim that He is Lord over ALL our lives. But if we were honest we would have to admit that there are “territories” of our lives over which we do not give Him control. Think about it. Is there any “territory” in your life that is “off limits” to God? Well in the giving of this first command God was leading the Hebrew people beyond polytheism and henotheism to monotheism….which of course is the realization that there is not simply one God for each nation, but that there is only one God for all the earth….and He is everywhere!

Psalm 139 expresses this truth when it says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to the heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn and if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me. And Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” The Psalmist here is saying there is no place that God is not….no territory that He does not cover.

Now I want to point out three other things about this first commandment… First, of all ten commands, it may just be the toughest one to keep.

Now in all likelihood we who live in Amarillo, Texas, or wherever you might be reading this, won’t be asked to give our lives because of our commitment to put God first. Like Dietrich Bonheoffer, the theologian and pastor during WWII who refused to put Hitler on the throne and steadfastly kept God #1-and because of this was hung in a German prison…or like Cassie Bernall, the teen at Littleton, Colorado, who said, “Yes, I believe in God” and then paid for God’s priority in her life with a bullet through her head. Or like the tens of thousands of Christians around the world today who suffer because of their obedience to this law. Obeying this first commandment doesn’t usually involve this kind of persecution…but I think we still struggle to obey it. It is still difficult-even here-for us to keep God #1 in our lives. And…I say this from personal experience. You see, as I consider all the tasks I perform each week, whether it be sending letters to our guests or counseling or visiting in the hospital or preparing to preach.

When I think of all these tasks and compare them to obeying this first commandment, I would have to say that keeping God first in my life is the most difficult thing I do. It is so easy to let pride in godly tasks push God off of the throne of my life. And I think most Christians struggle with their obedience to this law. Maintaining a close, personal, growing relationship with Jesus Christ IS tough.

It is a daily battle. But as Ron Mehl says, “Our number one task as believers is to make sure that nothing — no “god,” person, object, task, duty, or pleasure-comes before God in our priorities, in our plans, and in our affection.” And Christians have always floundered in this area. Scripture says that the believers who made up the church in Ephesus worked extremely hard, stayed doctrinally sound, and patiently endured suffering in the Lord’s name. Yet, in spite of this, Jesus said they were “this close” to losing their light and their witness in the world. Why? Look at Revelation 2:4 . It says this was true because they had “left their FIRST love.” You see we can get so busy doing the Lord’s work that we don’t spend time with the Lord. We can actually come to worship godly activity and in so doing dethrone God Himself.

God wants to be FIRST in our lives. He pursues an exclusive love relationship with us. Perhaps this first command was on King Solomon’s mind when he wrote in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with ALL your heart and lean not on your own understanding: in ALL YOUR WAYS acknowledge Him, and he will make your paths straight.” Now the phrase “all your ways” means in every thing we do….EVERYTHING! And the word “acknowledge” infers a relationship in which we put God first.

So, I think a good paraphrase of these words might be: “In everything you do-in your marriage, in your parenting, in the way you do your job, in the way you figure your taxes, in the way you drive your car on I-40, in the things you do for pleasure….IN EVERYTHING, PUT GOD FIRST, and He will direct you and crown your efforts with success.” So, I think this commandment IS the hardest to obey….But you know….

….it is also one of the most beneficial to us.

Since God is the boss of our lives….since our lives and everything in them are HIS responsibility…since we are HIS concern…that means the “buck” stops there. And since it does then it pretty much makes worry and anxiety obsolete. As Psalm 56:3 says, “In the day when I am afraid, I will have confidence in THEE.” – not ME. Ron Mehl, whose book on the ten(der) commandments inspired me to do this series, suffers from Leukemia. He writes, “Many people ask me how I’ve dealt with years of this illness — years of hanging by a rope over the edge of a cliff.

My answer might be that it’s not so bad when you know Who is holding the rope! I’ve settled into a sense of confidence that my time is in the Lord’s hands…..you see I know that my life really is HIS responsibility.” When we put GOD first then, like Pastor Mehl, we come to experience firsthand the truth of I Peter 5:7 .

We learn that we can, “Throw the whole weight of our anxieties on Him, for we are HIS personal concern.” You see, God asks us to make Him the first in our lives because we are first in His! So obeying this commandment gives us a lot less to worry about in life. We can sleep a lot better at night! In Matthew 6 Jesus said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear….your Heavenly Father knows that you need these things. Seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” You know worry is actually a sort of “red light” on the dashboards of our lives informing us that we are not putting God first.

So when you find yourself wringing your hands this week. remember that worry means we have taken back our lives from God’s omnipotent, all-loving care! Instead get on your knees and take your situation to the Boss. As the George Beverly Shea used to sing, “take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.” I want to say one more thing about this commandment. And here it is: when you come down to it….

It is foolish NOT to put God first.

As, Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” Considering all that God has done for us and all that He has promised to DO for us…it IS foolish to deny Him first place in our lives. He has loved us enough to give us His only Son to be our much-needed Redeemer! Why not give Him first place in our lives! Mehl tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who sat in class one day , taking a test. He became so nervous about the test and getting it done within the time limit, that he lost control and suddenly wet his pants. His face turned beet red as he looked down and saw a little puddle there beneath him. He wondered, “What am I going to do? I’m so ashamed! People will see! I’ll be the laughing stock of the school!” About this time he looked up and saw his teacher motioning him to come to her desk and he worried all the more for if he stood up people would be sure to notice his accident.

Well at that moment one of his classmates, a little girl, was coming down the aisle from behind him, carrying a large fish-bowl full of water.

When she got up alongside him, she suddenly lurched to one side and spilled the entire contents all over him and then dropped the bowl which shattered with a loud crash…and now covered by fish-tank water, the boy sat there thinking, “Thank God! Thank God! There is a God in heaven!” And he was so thankful that this little girl had done this that he was about to smile at her in gratitude when he remembered that little boys don’t even like little girls.

So instead he frowned at her and said, “What is wrong with you, you clumsy clod? Can’t you watch where you are going?!” Then, as the class laughed at the girl, the teacher took the boy (now covered by dignity) to the gym class to get him some dry clothes to wear. At lunchtime that day no one would sit with the little girl. Her friends avoided her at recess. It was clear that she had been elected the klutz of the day. When the day ended and the boy was on his way home, he saw this little girl walking by herself along the fence. He began to remember all that had happened that day and on an impulse he sheepishly walked over to her and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what happened today. That wasn’t an accident was it? You did that on purpose.”

And she replied, “Yes I did do it on purpose. I saw what had happened to you.”

You know we have a Redeemer Who, by dying on Calvary’s cross took our shame upon Himself. By shedding His precious blood, Jesus covered us. He washed away our sins. God saw our hopeless situation and provided a way for us to be rescued.

So, why should I ever want to put anyone or anything in front of Him? Why in the world would anyone want to tolerate any other “gods” in his life?

Why serve lesser “lords?” How could I NOT put Him first? So today, why not commit to give Him first place in YOUR heart and life? If you, dear reader, have never committed your life to Jesus….why not do so now? Ask Him to forgive your sin. Give Him the controls….the responsibility for every part of your life. Let’s all commit right now to make His will first. It could be that you feel that God’s will is to join the Church.

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“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria)…” Luke 2.

The reading of the nativity narrative from Luke has been a part of my every Christmas Eve dinner since I was born. This is one of our enduring family traditions, giving focus to why our family is gathered, what the celebration is about, and beginning our worship cycle for the year.

The family sits gathered at the Christmas table and my father’s basso voice deeply enriches the Word as he reads from the Gospel of St. Luke. We listen, and give thanks for family and friends gathered near and far. Those with us and those separated from us are remembered in prayer. We pray fervently for our nation and her leaders, and continue to petition that His peace be spread on earth, and that we continue to have good will toward all men.

We pray our thanks for the blessings of each other, and our own, asking for each of our family and friends to remain safe and finally concluding our pre-meal devotion in simple praise for the events of a little over 2000 years ago.

We then go to church and watch the Christmas pageant, hearing and seeing those words, still fresh on our minds, acted out on stage.

For me, and my family, this is the way Christmas should be – a day focused on our Savior deigning to become human and dwell on earth with us for a while.

The Gospel of St. Luke is all about what happens to common people in a world that is dark and then suddenly the glory of the Lord is revealed. Like the characters in Luke, the players in a church Christmas pageant are common. Common children and basic costumes, replete with forgotten lines, stage fright, and funny bloopers.  But, what a story these children tell. In all that is common, a quite extraordinary story is told. In all that is commonplace about that quiet night, and extraordinary moment occurs. The Christmas program reveals God coming to earth as an infant. The quiet night reveals to us that the world will be no longer silent.

God meets us. God is revealed to us. All this glory through a baby that Mary and Joseph called Jesus.

Max Lucado says it best in his book, “The Glory of Christmas.” He writes,

“There is one word that describes the night he came – ordinary.

The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were diamonds sparkling on black velvet.

The sheep were ordinary. Some fat. Some scrawny. Common animals. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners.

And the shepherds. Peasants they were. Probably wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as wooly.

An ordinary night with ordinary sheep and ordinary shepherds. And were it not for God who loves to hook an “extra” on the front of the ordinary, the night would have passed relatively unnoticed. The sheep would have been forgotten, and the shepherds would have slept the night away.

But God dances amidst the common. And that night He did a waltz.

The black sky exploded with brightness. Trees that had been shadows jumped into clarity. Sheep that had been silent became a chorus of curiosity. One minute the shepherd was dead asleep; the next he was rubbing his eyes and staring into the face of an alien.

The night was ordinary no more.

The announcement went first to the shepherds. Had the angel gone to the theologians, they would have first consulted their commentaries. Had he gone to the elite, they would have looked around to see if anyone was watching.

So he went to the shepherds. Men who didn’t know enough to tell God that angels don’t sing to sheep and that messiahs aren’t found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough.”

God didn’t come for the perfect. God didn’t come for those of us that have it all together. He didn’t come for those of us who can go through life on our own. God came for the clumsy. For the meek. For the frightened and the lost. God came as the most helpless of all creatures – an infant – to show us that we need not be rich or famous or special for God to love us.

Isn’t it funny that these little Christmas pageants that we have year after year, appear to be so mediocre compared to what really happened that night? What if we tried to recreate here, the spectacular events that unfolded the night Jesus was born?

To start, it could begin fairly simple. Just some shepherds resting on a Judean hillside, watching their flocks of sheep. Our shepherds could just be standing over to the side, tending to a few of the younger children wearing sheep ears.

But then, what would we do next? How could we portray the next scenes that play out? Suddenly the scene is filled with the light of glory. This light of glory is beyond anything we can ever imagine. How would we portray that? No lights we have could do that. We’d have to have a million deer shining lights for that.

And then the matter of the angel, and another and another, until there becomes a heavenly host, and the shepherds become terrified. We’d have to have 500 people playing the parts of angels, strung up on the ceiling, singing the most beautiful music you have ever heard in order to try to recreate that event! And that would not come close to doing it justice.

Maybe the point isn’t to see how spectacular one can make a Christmas pageant. Decorations and costumes and technology isn’t what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about welcoming the baby Jesus with an open heart. It is about believing that God has done a wonderful and special thing by coming down into our world.

It is about wanting to make room for a Savior to be born. Only for us, the Savior will be born in our hearts. What in your life needs that newly born Savior? Where are you hurting the most? What needs to change for you this year?

Remember that we are told, “With God anything is possible!” (Phil 4:13) With God, we can be comforted in our grief. With God, we can overcome depression. With God, we can pursue long-held dreams. With God, we can reach out to serve others in ways we never imagined.

I pray that each one of us can be moved with the gift of Christmas. May each one of us, in our own ways be filled with the gift of grace that came in the form of a baby.

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As we prepare for the coming holiday season, the pageantry, the anticipation, the exchanging of gifts, the subjective increase in good will between people, the lights, the trees, the decorations, family, friends, neighbors, and the breaks from school and work one begins to think about the meaning of this time of year.  People get into all sorts of debates, everything from “commercialism v. religious observance”, to “’holiday’ v. ‘Christmas’”.

While preparing for Thanksgiving last month, some of my students heard the reason why a celebration for giving thanks to God was such a huge deal. The Puritans didn’t believe in celebrating what we consider “traditional holidays”. They believed it violated the regulative practice of worship. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there are some today that continue this concept of 400 years ago.

There are many devout Christians that do not celebrate Christmas or Easter. Part of the objection of these modern day Puritans to celebrating Christmas is the legend of Santa Claus, a wholly understandable objection. It is argued that the making of Christmas wish lists, writing to Santa, and hoping for gifts requested is covetous and therefore sinful. It feeds into the sin of greed, and this leads to the increasing commercialism of the season. These are traits that certainly take away from what is often referred to as “the reason for the season”.

Another argument is that the against the celebration of a “made up holiday”, is that it was placed on the calendar in order to coincide with the pagan observance of Saturnalia. My question to those today that do not celebrate Christmas, yet call themselves Christian is this: “When is it ever a bad time to commemorate the Grace of God in His sending of His only begotten Son to us as a human, to live among us, to prepare for the day He was to take on the sins of the world, past, present, and future, sacrificing Himself for our salvation.? To me this is a worthy cause of celebration.”

If you say December 25th is a bad time, given the history of that period of the year and previous pagan celebrations, when would be a good time? Then I challenge you to explain why one time is inherently “better” than another when discussing the eternal gift of salvation. Discussion of this point, of course, logically leads to the celebration of Easter. When is it a bad time to commemorate the life of the Savior of the Universe?

While one can make the make the argument that Christ’s birth is not clearly documented to determine with any degree of accuracy to a time period certain, the same cannot be said of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These events are specific to the Jewish calendar. These events occurred during Passover, a religious observance that had been celebrated for more than 2000 years before Christ walked among us.

This is a holiday in which even the name “Easter” is derived from the pagan Celtic goddess “Eostre”. If you celebrate Easter, but not Christmas I would love to have you explain your logic behind that one. If you celebrate neither, how can you call yourself a follower of Christ when you refuse to acknowledge the very culmination of His purpose for His life on Earth?

Was it not Him that directed us: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Take and drink, this is my blood, shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

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“Measure thy life by loss and not by gain, not by the wine drunk but by the wine pourth forth. For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice and he that suffereth most hast most to give.” – Ugo Bassi

As I was perusing some of the quotes, comments and status updates on the popular social-networking sites of the day, I ran across this quote posted by a former student who is now a missionary in Thailand.

Immediately I was struck by its profound message of sacrifice and service, the essence of the missionary life. It is a concept and lifestyle that might come easier to one on mission, but should be applied by all that call themselves Christian.

We are called to serve and sacrifice. Sometimes following Christ means making painful sacrifices – possessions, friendships, relationships. But God will not forget those who have been forced to make such sacrifices for his sake.

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:29

Even though we are promised a reward for sacrificing in this life we should have other motives for wanting to serve and sacrifice for others. The early Christian church is an inspiring model for us to follow today: devoted to the teachings of the Gospel, committed to worship and fellowship together, and faithfully celebrating communion in memory of Christ’s sacrifice.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Acts 2:42-45

The writer of Hebrews extols us to the same virtue of sacrifice. He invites us to offer sacrificial praise to God continually.

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:15-16

When we sacrifice our own comfort, our own needs, our own pride for others, we are remembering who we are. It’s easy to forget that when our lives are so full, so busy that one becomes self-focused just to get things done or to get our needs and wants met. A sacrificial life is one that reflects that God will provide.

A bloody, physical sacrifice of a paschal lamb, goat, or calf is not what God demands. Rather he wants us to sacrifice our own selves to Him by committing to do His will in our lives. The worship God wants from us is to serve others in His name.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the patter of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” Romans 12:1-2

Our need to sacrifice is based on the Christian requirement to love others as we love ourselves, as Christ loved us. To love, unconditionally, requires willful sacrifice. We can learn how to love from the example of Christ, and get a refresher from 1 Corinthians 13, but to truly love so deeply that we begin to “cover a multitude of sins” requires a life lived in daily submission to the will and lives of others.

“The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God maybe praised though Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 4:7-11

To what limit should we serve, to what limit sacrifice? God plainly supplies that answer as well. What greater act of love is there than sacrificing yourself for others? Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice not for one of us, but for all of us. To gain the gift of that sacrifice, all we have to do is accept it, by accepting Him. He laid down his life for us. We, as Christians – Christ followers – should be ready and willing to lay down our lives for others if it becomes necessary.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no on than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:13crown-of-thorns

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Our Lord and Savior, our Superior in the chain of command, has given us a mission. We call it the GREAT COMMISSION. Remember the commanding words Jesus spoke as He was ascending to heaven while the disciples looked on:

“All authority has been given me in heaven and earth. Therefore, go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I am with you always as you do this.(Matthew 28:18-20 )

Our mission of leading people to accept Christ and become His disciples must take priority in our day to day existence. Lives depend on this. The eternal destinies of men and women hinge on this. We should center our lives as Christians and as members of the church on this task we are called to do and on the essentials that enable us to accomplish it.

If we allow ourselves to be sidetracked into dealing with non-essentials, then we will only slow ourselves down. In fact, we will risk not being able to accomplish our mission. We will hinder our ability to be a part of the greatest task God has ever given to His people. And, to accomplish this mission, there are three essential things we must know and believe.

* We must have a correct belief of the nature and authority of the Bible.

* We must have a precise understanding of who Jesus is. And,

* We must have an accurate comprehension of how a person is saved, converted, how someone comes to be a Christian.

These three beliefs encompass what I believe are the bare essentials that we need if we are to complete the task God has given us. I have always loved the following saying and would love for it to be able to be said about the Christians everywhere ….that in this place we have freedom in the non-essentials, UNITY IN THE ESSENTIALS, and love in every thing. So for the next three posts we will take a close look at these essential beliefs. Today we look at the first essential–our belief about the Bible.

Let’s consider this:

* Why is our belief about the Bible important?

* Why is this an essential?

* Why do Christians revere this book?

We do this because the Bible involves the whole issue of the revelation of God. Think about it. How can we know God exists? How can we know what He is like? You and I are not intelligent enough to even scratch the surface of understanding the nature of God. He is infinitely above you and me. Job 11:17 expresses this when it says, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?”

The answer is no…we can’t. God is simply too big for us to understand.So if we are to have a relationship with God then He must reveal Himself to us. He must take the initiative. And He has. God has revealed Himself in several ways.

* God has revealed himself through nature… Romans 1:20 says, “…ever since God created the world, His invisible qualities, both His eternal power and His divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made.”

* God has revealed Himself through History. The Old Testament is full of expressions that reflect a recognition of God because of His activity in the affairs of men and nations. II Chronicles 33:13 reflects this acknowledgment of God as being active in the history of Israel when it says, “Then Israel knew that the Lord is God.”

* God also revealed Himself through the prophets He sent. These men often used the phrase, ” The WORD OF THE LORD came to me…”

* But God’s fullest revelation came in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by HIS SON.”

So in past millennia God has taken the initiative to reveal Himself in many ways. But what about people like you and me who were not present in years long gone and did not see God’s involvement in history or the events surrounding Christ’s life, death, and resurrection? To reveal Himself to all people something more was required — a WRITTEN RECORD was needed. And so, God has given us this in the Bible… He has revealed Himself to us on the pages of this book.So our beliefs about this book are important because these pages are the written story of God pursuing a relationship with humanity. Suffice it to say that this book is unique. There is no other book like it and never will be.

And today, as we look at the unique characteristics of the Bible you will see why it is so important for us to give it the authority in our lives that it demands.

So the Bible is not just another book…..it is different….in several ways….

1. First of all it is different from any other book — in that it is the WORD OF GOD and not man.

As the verses in our text for today put it, “All scripture is GOD-BREATHED….none of it originated in the will of man….” And the entire Bible beginning with the Old Testament makes this claim. If you were to sit down and read from Genesis to Malachi you would count over 3800 times in which phrases such as “Thus says the Lord” or “This is the word of the Lord” are used. The writers of the New Testament repeatedly recorded their belief that the Old Testament was God’s word by directly quoting the Old Testament over 300 times as being the “Word of God”.

Jesus affirmed the authority of the Old Testament, when He said in John 10:35 — “for we know that the scripture is true forever” In fact every tenth recorded saying of Jesus is a direct quote of the Old Testament. In Luke 16:17 Jesus says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the smallest detail of the Law to be done away with.”

2. The Bible is also unique in that, unlike any other book it is a book that is alive.

Remember the words of Hebrews 4:12 that we read earlier, “The word of God is living and active”? Well, it is living and active. And so, when we read its words, they reach out and touch the needs of our lives in an almost tangible way. Isaiah 55:11 describes scripture as being a living agent or messenger that God sends to touch our lives. Listen to what God says in this passage: ” ….My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

So, unlike any other book, the Bible is living and powerful.

3. The Bible is also unique in that by reading its words a person can come to know God personally.

Remember the words of II Timothy 3:15-17 “….from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. “ Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the WORD OF GOD.” Remember the words of John 20:31. “…these words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in Him.”

You know…. perhaps the best way to summarize the make-up of this book is to say that it is an invitation from Creator to creation. It is God’s written invitation to all of us. In this book God invites you and me to live our lives according to His wisdom. He invites us to give this book authority in our lives–to adopt it as our guidebook–our instruction manual for life.

In these pages God has issued a written invitation to us–to know Him personally, to walk with Him daily. Like all invitations this book calls for us to respond.

What will your’s be?

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47 And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people.
48 Now His betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him.” 49 Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. Matthew 26:47-49

In Oberammergau, Germany, there is a famous Passion Play, and it wonderfully portrays the life and death of Jesus. One day I was relating to a  ministry team member what the play is like, having been lucky enough to be able to attend on two seperate occasions. That conversation brought back some memories of a similar play he’d been in some years ago. I asked him what part he played, and he answered a little sheepishly, “I think maybe I was typecast. I played Judas.” Then he went on to explain what an eerie feeling it was to play the one who betrayed our Lord. But, then, haven’t we all?

It’s an unsettling thought to consider that you or I might ever play Judas in our relationship with Christ; unsettling, but sometimes all too true. Our word for today from the Word of God focuses again on what it can look like to sell out the Son of God.

Matthew 26:14 records it this way,

“Then one of the Twelve – the one called Judas Iscariot – went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand Him over.”

The first thing that bothers me about this is that the one who betrays Jesus is one who is really close to Him. And most of us Christians would like to think that we’re close to Jesus. We sing the psalms, and the hymns, we say the prayers, and profess that we believe. But that closeness, the piousness, the actions, are no guarantee that you won’t sell out your Savior when the price seems right. I’m sure if you had told Judas a few months before his betrayal that he was going to do this, he would have reacted the same way you and I do, “No way I’d ever betray Jesus.” But he did.

And it’s convicting to see the value judgment that led to Judas’ betrayal. There was something that seemed worth more to him than Jesus did; something he couldn’t have and also remain true to the Lord. In his case, some silver coins. Some of us have sold out Jesus for a lot less.

I wonder what your sellout price might be; the thing that you would allow to displace Jesus – the thing you would leave Jesus’ way to get? Would you push Jesus aside to have a relationship you know He doesn’t want? Or to get ahead? To get some friends or to keep your friends? Would you betray Jesus to have more money? To get married? To keep your image? Would you sell out Jesus for a little pleasure? A little relief from your pain? Would you shove Jesus aside to have your own way? More importantly, are you betraying Jesus for anything you cannot have and still remain true to Him?

Judas betrayed Jesus and he never came back. While there’s a Judas, there’s also a Peter; one close to Jesus who turned his back on Jesus. But Peter is living proof that a denier, a betrayer, can come back! In fact, when Peter repented with all his heart, all Jesus wanted to know (He asked him three times) was this, “Do you love Me?” Peter did, and Jesus entrusted major spiritual leadership to this one who had once turned his back on Him. You know, he’ll do the same for you. With Jesus, failure doesn’t ever have to be final.

The ugliest role in any story about Jesus is playing Judas. Are you?

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