Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Two Way Transaction

Editor's Note: It would be an understatement to say we regretted missing last Sunday's service due to weather. The Christmas hymns are a meaningful complement to the festiveness of this advent seasons. Likewise we were out of town for the Christmas Eve service... so my apologies for the absence here this past week. It's my understanding that we missed some special moments with our church family, including the sharing of Casie Ecklund's poem which was published in a 2008 poetry collection titled Brilliance. You may read the poem in the "comments" section at the end of this blog entry.

Today's service began with a reminder from Pastor Brad that Christmas is not a day, but a season. Beginning with the wonderful passage from John's Gospel, "We beheld His glory," Pastor then made personal for us the many ways in which Jesus comes to us as highlighted in the Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. (Isaiah 9:6) Jesus, the "wonderful counsellor" can counsel us through hard choices. Jesus the "mighty God" can help us through the things that overwhelm us. Jesus the "everlasting father" is ever watching over us, accepting us as we are, His eyes ever turned toward us with compassion.

Following this warm welcome, the congregation shared in the selecting of Christmas hymns which we sang together. After the offering, Major Florence McArthur of the Salvation Army read the Old and New Testament Scriptures for us today. Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:22-40

A Two Way Transaction

The sermon began with Pastor Brad reading from John 1:1-14 which begins with these beautiful words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The verses Brad built his message around were these:

10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

"Can you imagine... being rejected by your own family?" he began. Brad cited a new problem that is occurring in Nebraska due to laws which allow parents to drop off their children, permanently, at hospitals or safe houses with "no questions asked." This past week a father discarded nine children, ages 1 to 17 at an Omaha hospital. Other parents have abandoned their teens.

The passage in John it says that Jesus came to his own people and they did not receive him. Another translation says "they did not want Him." The original Greek word is a verb meaning "take." They did not take him. They should have received Him into intimate fellowship, but instead rejected Him.

Another translation (Eugene Peterson's The Message) reads this way:

He came to his own people,
but they didn't want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.

Some did want Him, accepted Him, believed... and they became who they were meant to be.

Another passage was noted here as well. "He made His home with us that we could be at home with Him."

The were two key ideas Brad outlined based on these verses. First, our acceptance with God. And second, God not only approves of us but delights in us.

Acceptance with God
Robert Frost, in his poem Death of the Hired Man, gave a definition of home that Brad never forgot. "Home is the place where , when you have to go there, they have to take you in." It is one of the priceless privileges of being in a family. It involves a special kind of acceptance, the kind we find only at home. It is an unconditional acceptance.

Too often, in the world at large we're accept "if"... If we scratch their backs, they will accept us and maybe scratch ours. We're loved not for who we are, but for what we can do.

At home, we experience an unconditional acceptance that is sometimes in spite of ourselves.

Approval from God
Jesus gives us approval from God and actually takes delight in us. Our presence in His presence brings God pleasure.

What especially brings God pleasure is when we want Jesus so much that we will do what He says. It is in this new status as God's children that He takes delight in us.

God is glad to have us in His family. We are a delight to the Lord of the Universe, of incredible worth in God's eyes.

Some of our problems come in part from a misunderstanding of what it means to be "in Christ." To be "in Christ" is a theological term which Paul uses frequently. It has been compared to being a sheet of paper which has been placed inside a book. If you throw the book away, you throw the paper away. But if you place the book in a safe place, the paper is safe as well. And if the paper is stained, splotched, dirty, you don't see the paper, you only see the book. The same is true of our position in Christ. When God looks at us, he sees Christ. He does not see our dirt.

God not only accepts you, God delights in you. Do you believe this? Love Him so much that you'll do what He says, whatever that may be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

You Can’t Kill Hope

The weekend’s weather forecasters nearly guaranteed a bad patch of weather for us today, and sure enough the flurries turned to accumulation, with promises of more. This did not deter worship this morning as the sanctuary appeared fairly full once more, despite the dire forecasts.

This did not mean there were no concerns about the weather. The service opened with a discussion regarding the postponing of the afternoon Christmas program, and a decision that next week would be safer. The howling wind and blowing snow throughout the service confirmed the wisdom of this decision.

Jake and Leanne Vanderscheuren lit the Advent Candle this morning to begin this Third Sunday of Advent service. After Darlene’s beautiful introit, we were led in worship by Ellie, Pearl, Robin and Brad. Dana shared two special songs with us during the service.

Today’s Scripture reading:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:47-55

After leading us in a time of prayer Pastor Brad Shannon delivered the message.

You Can’t Kill Hope

Matthew 2 begins with the well known story about the visit of the Magi:

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Using this passage as a springboard, Pastor Brad shared today who King Herod was, and how Herod is a symbol with much meaning for us today.

King Herod had been a powerful ruler in Israel, having been in command for forty years by the time the Christ child was born. He was successful by currying favor with Jewish leaders through temple improvements. Building projects probably also meant jobs. And his ability to rule Israel in a stable manner gave him points in Rome, since Israel at this time was under Roman rule.

Herod had a weak side, too, however. He was quite paranoid about losing his position and, over a period of time, in an effort to eliminate potential rivals or threats to his power he had his mother, wife and three of four sons killed. In short, he was not a nice guy.

This insecurity helps us understand how a man with power could order the slaughter of all infants under two years of age as he did. He would not permit any rival to challenge his throne.

Pastor Brad used the story of Herod as a metaphor for our own times and lives. The Jewish leaders put up with Herod's excesses because they got something out of it. There is always a cost, however... like high taxes which flowed back to Rome. And the occasional, unusual cruelty. Citing the historian Josephus, we learned how on his deathbed Herod ordered some of Jerusalem's elite citizens to be executed so that at least someone would be weeping when he died. Herod the Great.

In the same way, Pastor Brad indicated that many of us have things in our own lives that bring us perceived benefits but have hidden costs. These are our Herods, and he offered many examples.

Workaholic addiction was the first example he cited. The heightened energy of a workaholic helps him get things done and offers satisfactions, but at what price? How many workaholic dads there are who miss their kids' basketball games, and portions of their childrens' lives because they "weren't there."

Sometimes our Herod is an old hurt which we won't let go of, to which you've become addicted. You may not have deserved the hurt, and it may even have been a long time ago, but it's always waiting for you, especially when you're tired. You've tried to forgive the person who hurt you but have not been successful. Now it's so much a part of your life you don't know who you are any more without it. When you do rid yourself of it, you end up inviting it back into your heart.

"When you become too comfortable with your hurt, Herod is running your life and will ruin it with this hurt," he said.

Your Herod can be the alcohol that abuses you. Or the spouse that abuses you. It can be the job that abuses you day after day.... but you can't let go.

Our Herod can be the voice that says we can ignore the poor. Herod will tell you you've got your own problems, don't worry about those others. But if we do nothing in the face of need, we ourselves are the ones who become impoverished.

The wise men came to Jerusalem asking "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" The passage in Matthew notes that not only was Herod frightened by this question, all Jerusalem was frightened as well. The city did not joyously rise up at the announcement that a liberator-king had been born. That's because people tend to prefer the misery they know to the mystery that is not yet known. It seems irrational, but it's human nature. Just because you know you are addicted doesn't mean you want to be delivered.

Yet this is what Christmas is about.

Jesus came not to give us a holiday, but to liberate us from our Herods. No matter how much Herod strives to extinguish the hope in our hearts, Jesus lives to keep that hope alive. Herod knows that the birth of the Christ in our lives means freedom from Herod. So he does all he can to quench our hope.

Jesus' entrance into the world means liberation. His presence as infant was a sign that God was opening His arms to us. As a man He told us of a new kingdom, established by God, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. On the cross, this Jesus died to set us free, to be fully alive.

In the Holy Child we see the birth of hope... and a new kingdom, a new hope. You can't kill this hope.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

You Are Welcome At The Table

“Is it not incredible that God makes Himself known?” So began the service as Pastor Shannon welcomed us on this chilly Sunday morning. Not only has God made Himself known, He has invited us to fellowship with Him. Today, on this second Sunday in advent, our theme revolved around the Lord’s table.

1) Be sure to bring your soup cans for Covenant World Relief next week
2) The Christmas Program will be next Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Practice, for all involved in the program, will be Saturday morning from ten till noon at the church.
3) All were invited to an Open House at Brad & Brooke Shannons after the service.

As we entered into worship, Chuck read us a passage from Mark 14, about the Last Supper, an intro to the song In the Upper Room with Jesus by the quartet. The Borndal family lit the advent candle this week, and after a time of worship, Joanne read Scriptures from Isa. 64:1-9 and Mark 1:1-8.

There are many needs among us and we entered a time of prayer reminded of the reality that when we are struggling, this is a place where one can find hope.

You Are Welcome at the Table

Pastor Brad began his message by asking a simple question. Who is welcome at this table. By this he is referring to the communion table where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

To make his points he began my mentioning that last week we had Cyber Monday, possibly the big day of the year for online shopping. Catalog shopping, however, is not obsolete. In point of fact, more than 10,000 companies sell products via direct mail catalogs. 13.5 billion catalogs are mailed each year and 55% of buy something from one of these catalogs, spending more than 51 billion dollars this past year.

He cited a number of these catalogs many of us receive such as Land’s End, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, etc. In a light hearted manner he made observations like this one, that the images portrayed in catalogs from different companies are like different neighborhoods. One catalog might be filled with scenes from Hermantown, another from East End neighborhoods, etc. One catalog conveys a look of stylish but not stuck up. Another projects that elitist chic that appeals to some.

But in all of them, what you see are people generally in perfect weather, perfect clothes, perfect health. There are no sick or elderly people or broken people. The kids are perfect, and there is no hint of death, disease, or personal problems.

Perhaps some of you aspire to live in one of these catalog neighborhoods, Brad suggested. But then he cited the well known passages from Ecclesiastes in which all is summed up as vanity and a meaningless chasing after wind.

The theme today, then, had to do with outlining the path to the Lord’s table. L.L. Bean is a nice catalog, but not the path to this place. In point of fact, despite the apparent inequities we see in monetary terms, life ultimately is a great leveler. It has been said that “the ground beneath the cross is level.” When we come to Christ is it because of our universal need for hope and for a Savior.

In the presence of Christ’s brokenness, we see real blood on His face, His back, His body, real wounds in His hands, His feet, His side.

Our privilege at being able to come to Him is not because we have a 4WD vehicle and come from a perfect neighborhood. We come to the table because we know we are not perfect, but broken.

We were reminded that some may not feel the need, but the truth is that in this world there will be trouble for all of us sooner or later.

Some Christians, some church, have become skilled at drawing lines. If you’re not perfect, if you’re don’t look you come from Catalog America, you might be excluded.

Christ comes to this table and invited people like you and me, with their grief, with their broken dreams…. as they are. And as Isaiah notes, “By His stripes we are healed.”

The great miracle is that Jesus did not exclude. Pastor Brad illustrated this point vividly in retelling the story of the dinner at Levi’s house where there were tax collectors, sinners and even a prostitute. Jesus was confronted about this, but replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor…”

Pastor Brad proposed the idea that too often the church excludes people from fellowship until they meet some kind of criteria making them worthy. Jesus, as illustrated in the story above, turned this Pharisaical notion on its head. Fellowship is first, and there is room for you at the table. Come as you are.

Essentially, Jesus sets the rules. Heaven is portrayed as a banquet. His invitation stands. Come. Come as you are. There is a seat here with your name on it.

After the message we shared the Lord’s Supper in a very special way. The Lord is good.