Thursday, December 25, 2014

Good News of Great Joy for All the People

No, the announcement of the Savior’s birth did not come first to the religious elite in the hallowed halls of Jerusalem, nor to the political powers in Rome, and not even to the CNN News Room in Atlanta, but to common, poor shepherds in the fields outside of the little town of Bethlehem as they kept watch over the flocks by night.

Lowly, powerless, insignificant, nameless shepherds. Hardly the movers and shakers of their day. Shepherds who were accustomed to facing all kinds of fears and bearing the stigma and shame of high society. How often do you suppose these shepherds may have wondered if God noticed them at all? If He really cared for them? Or if He even existed? Life certainly wasn’t blowing them any kisses.

Yet on that night with the brilliant light of God’s glory shining about them, and with the joy they discovered when they found the baby lying in the manger, every question was answered and every doubt and fear erased. This message of good news of great joy is indeed for all the people. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And even these shepherds recognized their great significance in the eyes of heaven.

Friend, no matter how lowly or insignificant you feel, or how shamefully others may treat you, how common, poor, powerless, hopeless or helpless you feel, this message of salvation through Jesus Christ the Lord is still good news of great joy for all people. You are of such great worth in the eyes of heaven that Jesus came to give His life for you. The depth of God’s love for you is demonstrated at the cross, where mercy flows freely and grace abounds richly to all who believe.

Let me invite you to come and hear the First Baptist Church choir reprise “The Song of Christmas” this coming Sunday night, Dec. 28, at 6:00. We presented this musical this past Sunday, and if you heard it I think you’ll attest that it’s worth hearing again and worth inviting a friend to come with you. All are welcome and encouraged to come.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

10 reasons to rest assured that I'm officially in the Christmas spirit

Just in case you’re still wondering whether or not I’m a Scrooge, here’s a Top Ten list of reasons to rest assured that I’m officially in the Christmas spirit, whatever that means, exactly.

1. I wish people “Merry Christmas,” rather than Happy Holidays. If you want to say Happy Holidays, that’s fine with me. I take no offense. Just don’t take offense at me wishing you a Merry Christmas, either. And if your store chooses to eliminate the word Christmas from its vocabulary and advertising campaign in in the name of political correctness, then don’t be surprised if I do my shopping elsewhere. Which probably isn’t a big deal to you anyway since I don’t really do much shopping. So there.

2. I have a Christmas decoration in my office at church. As a matter of fact, it’s Santa Claus in a black leather jacket, dark sunglasses, jeans and boots riding a big red motorcycle. And when you start the engine he rocks out to “Born to Be Wild.”

3. We have a Christmas tree up at our house with all the ornaments we’ve accumulated over the past 21 years, and then some. And there’s a star on top. Not like the exploding trees they have on display at the Festival of Trees. What’s up with that anyway? Somebody needs to explain to me the concept of why the tops of all the trees look like somebody blew something up.

4. Gifts. When it comes to giving and receiving gifts, mostly receiving, I’m still like a kid at…well, Christmas.

5. The Nutcracker. The family and I went to the Sangamon Auditorium this past weekend to watch a fine performance of people ballet dancing. The sets and costumes were pretty impressive. It was weird, too, which is a compliment because the story takes place as a dream, and dreams are weird, so it was a good weird, I guess.

6. I look forward to family gatherings. We truly are blessed by God with good relationships on both sides of the family. Christmas gives us a chance to get together and enjoy our time, of which we never have enough.

7. Christmas cookies, puppy chow (the snack mix, not the dog food), white chocolate covered pretzels, cherry cheesecake, pecan pie, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, ice cream, bacon.

8. The scenes of Christmas decorating the town. Lights and nativity displays in tasteful moderation. Not the huge inflatable Santa in your front yard or the reindeer stable thing, but nicely decorated homes illuminating the neighborhoods. Unless the outdoor snow globe is your thing, then it’s cool with me, too.

9. I’m singing in the choir for the Petersburg First Baptist Church’s Christmas cantata this coming Sunday morning at 10:45. I have to because my wife is the choir director. It’s called “The Song of Christmas,” and I would love for you to come, too, and we’ll share in the Christmas spirit together.

10. Being reminded that the message of Christmas is Jesus. That He is the light of the world and the hope of the nations, who came preaching good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, announcing the year of the Lord’s favor, and comforting all who mourn. He came radiating the glory of God. He came abounding with the love of God for mankind. He came to seek and to save the lost by dying in our place on the cross, then rising in victory over sin and death and hell forever. He came as a baby born to a virgin girl named Mary in the little town of Bethlehem, but will one day come again on the clouds of heaven in power and great glory as the mighty King of kings. O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Demolishing Hostility, Making Peace Possible

I am tempted to write about the race relations problem plaguing America. But it’s Christmas. Can’t we just all get along?

One of the most significant things Jesus came to earth to accomplish involved some demolition. Jesus destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. He broke down the barrier and made the two one. He brought peace by reconciling both races to God through Himself on the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

It is no small miracle that in the church belonging to Jesus you will find all shades and hues of skin tone. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” Remember that song? Jesus truly does love all the little children of the world. And He showed it by dying on the cross for every race under the sun.

His blood is equally effective to cleanse the sins and stains of children from China as it is for the children of Chile and Chad and Chattanooga. The mercy and grace of Christ is just as full and free to folks in Finland as it is to folks in Florence and Frankfurt and Fort Wayne. In His love God pursues people from Paris just as passionately as He pursues people from Pakistan and Paraguay and Petersburg.

The book of Revelation in the Bible describes a scene the apostle John witnesses in heaven. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10).

It’s a beautiful picture of the nations from every corner of the earth gladly singing for joy and praising our one and only Savior and God, because He has destroyed the walls of hostility and made peace possible through Himself.

Friend, may I suggest that if you don’t really care for people of other nationalities or skin colors while you’re on this planet, you probably won’t enjoy heaven much at all. Let me go a step further and say that there is absolutely no place in the heart of a follower of Jesus to harbor hatred or prejudice against people from other races. And on top of that, I’d be questioning my own experience of God’s salvation if I’m not willing to extend that salvation to someone else because they’re not my same color, don’t speak my language or don’t come from my side of the tracks.

We’re all in the same boat no matter what we look like. We are human beings, each one fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Each one who has sinned against our Maker and is deserving of His wrath. Yet, each one who is loved deeply by the Almighty and offered the same gift of salvation from death and hell by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross. And each one who must repent of his sin and receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Five months into World War I, on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops began singing Christmas carols to each other across the lines. As Christmas Day’s first light began to shine, some German troops came out of their trenches unarmed, drew near the Allied lines across no-man’s land, and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ languages. The Allied soldiers hesitantly emerged as well and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged gifts of cigarettes and plum pudding and sang carols and songs together.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the hostility on the streets of Los Angeles, New York City and Ferguson demolished this Christmas? Aren’t all things possible with God?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Scrooged and Un-scrooged

I feel like a Scrooge. So sue me if I don’t really want to listen to Christmas songs on the radio 24/7 from now until Christmas Day. Forgive me if my desire to watch another Christmas special on TV hasn’t yet peaked, and may not register much above “eh.” And banish me to the island of misfit toys if I don’t give to every charity and bell-ringing organization in the world asking for my money.

I’m not against Christmas. I think the whole “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” thing was a pretty good idea. I mean, that is the reason we have Christmas in the first place, isn’t it? If it weren’t for Jesus there would be no Christmas. I think we ought to celebrate what happened when Jesus came from heaven to earth every single day by rejoicing in His grace and living for His glory.

I am, however, against too much Christmas. Commercial Christmas, that is. And remakes of beloved Christmas carols such as “O Holy Night” that sound like something out of an 80’s long-haired rock band. And sappy Hallmark-ish Christmas-y movies. And Christmas pageants and productions that glorify Santa but snub the Savior.

If we really want to capture “The Christmas Spirit” we need to seek the Christ whose Spirit fills our hearts with peace and joy and hope and goodness and kindness and love for one another. We need to think about the reason Jesus came in the first place, which was to bring salvation to mankind, because otherwise we’d be sunk dead in our sins with no hope of ever finding peace with God.

But Jesus offered His sinless life for us on the cross that we might be forgiven and made righteous in Him. This is the depth of God’s love for you, dear friend, that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And not only did He come to save us from death and hell, but also to give abundant and everlasting life to whosoever believeth in Him. I think I remember reading that in a Book somewhere. Maybe you have, too.

Truly it is an amazing story. May I suggest that spending some quiet time reading through the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke in the Bible and allowing the story to captivate your heart might just lead you to the most joyous Christmas you’ve ever experienced?

Invest a few moments imaging yourself in the role of Mary or Joseph. What emotions must have engulfed Mary’s spirit when the angel came announcing such a mysterious, miraculous message? Why was she the one chosen by God to carry the King of kings in her womb and give birth to the Author of Life? How can this be, she wondered? No wonder she burst forth in song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

And how did Joseph even begin to process what happened in his dreams? Could the long-awaited Messiah really be coming? Are the sacred prophecies truly beginning to unfold before my very eyes? Is my sweet Mary really to be the mother of my Savior? Which would make me His earthly father…? How shall I raise the Son of God?

The lights and the decorations and the trees and the sounds of the season are great (as are the gifts!), don’t get me wrong. And, yes, I even give some extra money to the Salvation Army. But in the midst of all the tinsel and garland let’s not forget the incredible story of our Savior who came from heaven to earth, to a little village called Bethlehem, then on to the hill called Calvary, then who rose up from the grave, appeared among men and ascended back into heaven where He is now seated at the right hand of His Father in glory, and will one day soon come again to receive those whose trust is in Him for salvation.

That’s a Christmas worth celebrating! Okay, I’m un-scrooged now.