Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Greatest Gift of All

'Tis the weekend before Christmas, a very special time;
Getting everything ready for this season sublime.

This morning we gathered to worship a great God who sent His son, Emmanuel, God with us. Brad welcomed us warmly, and candidly noted that it still blows his mind that the God of the universe would send His son to die for us. As we prepare for Christmas, Brad desired to make us aware of some special insights into this greatest gift of all.

The key announcement was a reminder that the Christmas Eve service will be at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. Then a worship time commenced, led by the quartet with Chuck, Darlene, Ken and Dale. Two great songs and some Christmas hymns moved us deeper into the service.

Pearl and Ruth Anne lit the advent candles this week. After the offering and a time of praise and prayer, Dana sang a wonderful song about sifting through the attic and recognizing that "my precious Jesus is more than an heirloom to me."

Brad then stepped to the pulpit to deliver the Gospel.

The Greatest Gift of All
The sermon today drew its inspiration from Matthew 2:1-12, the story 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.

As with all great Bible passages many lessons can be extracted from this story. For people who seeking, one can learn much from the dedication of these seekers. And if you are in leadership, there are lessons to be drawn from the disingenuous behavior of Herod as well. But today's theme has to do with the giving of gifts, and the passage does offer insights into how we conduct ourselves in this season of giving.

Brad stated that in all his years of going to church he had never heard a sermon on Christmas gift giving, so he decided it was time. There were four lessons we can take away from this story of the magi. (1) Planning (2) Personalization (3) Appropriate Price and (4) Presentation.

How do we normally think about gift giving? There are certainly a lot of ways we can get it wrong. There's always media pressure to give beyond our means. Or we can give so much at one time that we create unrealistic expectations for the future. Then there are those who piously reject Christmas gift giving altogether. How do we sort it out? The story of the magi can help.

1) Start with Planning
The magi came a long ways to be present at the birth of Jesus. And they had to plan in advance what they would bring. They did not wait till the last minute. They invested time and energy.

Brad then suggested we take out a piece of paper and make a list of people to consider in our gift giving. Faith, family and friends are the big three things in life. But Brad encouraged us to also consider those who were outsiders, the forgotten. On our list of people who are important to us, we need to include the overlooked.

2) Think how to Personalize the gift.
Brad brought examples of gifts that had been meaningful to him. The first was a beaver skin hat that his father paid a Russian man to make for him. Brad called it "the best gift I have ever received." He also shared a Brett Favre jersey and a sticker from his son, which he wore over his heart this morning.

The point here is that each gift demonstrated a knowledge of who Brad was. For this reason each was special to him.

Likewise the magi brought gifts that were fit for a king. Their gifts demonstrated that they understood the true identity of the kingship of Jesus. "Friends, learn from the wise men. Do a little planning and personalize your gift."

3) Price
Yes, the magi spent a lot, but God was worthy. You have to give gifts that fit the price point within your God-given means. This will be a challenge for some because they do not have unlimited resources. The sticker which Brad son gave him was home made, and very special because it was made with love. His son does not have any money, so it was appropriate as well. Meaningful gifts do not have to be expensive.

Brad warned that affluent people can sometimes go overboard just because they can afford to. Often there are many gifts that are simply things we don't need. It's just more clutter. Our giving should not be with the aim of impressing others.

4) Pay attention to the Presentation
The magi worshipped first, then gave. Rather than madly tearing off wrapping paper and wildly opening the presents, take a couple minutes to read the Christmas story and thank God for His gift to us.

While the world was lost, God planned a gift to us that was so spectacular, it took heaven's breath away... a gift to us that was personalized, and pricey. Now we know why the angels sang so gloriously on the hillside that precious night. It was the ultimate gift. To meet the ultimate need.

Brad summed up by suggesting that we can follow that pattern. Let us be responsive to God with an unrestricted heart, offering Him our allegiance and affection.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's Worth The Battle

A lot of people were surprised at how crispy cold it was this morning when they awoke. The cold only served to make our little country church feel especially warm as we gathered for worship today.

Pastor Brad welcomed us in with his heart "Good morning!" and went straight into announcements which included this afternoon's Christmas program at 4:00. There will be no board meeting Tuesday in order to free up time at this busy season. Next Sunday there will be no Sunday School.

Today is the third week of Advent. The Montgomerys -- Tracey, Ali and Morgan -- lit the Advent candles and read several passages from Scripture about the coming of the Messiah, of one would would be called "God with us."

An introit by Darlene preceded a heartfelt song of worship by Chuck, Ellie and Darlene which led us into worship.

After the offering and a time of prayer, Gwen sang Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne, a Christmas classic that never fails to move. Brad then brought us the message.

It's Worth The Battle

A placid, sweet Nativity scene was projected onto a screen for us as the starting point for today's sermon. We sometimes forget that the people we read about in Scripture are really people like us, people who have struggles and issues to overcome. The love we see in our images of the birth of Jesus is not something that just happened naturally. There were battles that had to be fought in order to achieve this moment of warmth and harmony.

1st Battle: The Battle for Righteousness

The first battle is a battle for personal integrity. Though we are all familiar with the story, Brad read to us again the account from the Gospel of Matthew.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

In those days, engagements were a very public matter. For this reason it was even more challenging for Joseph when his bride-to-be notified him that she was inexplicably pregnant. The two had chosen to maintain a holy stance until the wedding, and now she was pregnant and he knew this was not a child of his loins.

Brad noted here that obviously Joseph and Mary had kept their relationship pure during the time of their engagement, otherwise he might not even have known this was not his child. Brad asked, "Do you think God would have chosen Joseph and Mary had they not fought that battle for personal righteousness? Would we even know who they were today had they not fought to have a clear conscience before God?

As the Psalmist stated in Psalm 1:

1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

We were urged to be like David who wrote, "Lord, search me and know my heart so that if there is any wrong in me I can make it right." (paraphrase)

The fruit of a good conscience is freedom, joy, and peace that passes understanding.

2nd Battle: The Battle for Graciousness

When you put yourself in Joseph's shoes it is not hard to imagine what his reactions might have been when he learned that Mary was with child. You can be sure Joseph struggled over this. Rage, hurt, feelings of betrayal were undoubtedly stirred. After battling all these feelings, he chose in the end to be gracious. Rather than put her up to public ridicule, he "decided to divorce her quietly."

Joseph didn't act on whatever his first impulses might have been. Rather, he opened his heart to God and for God's help to gain a different perspective.

Brad brought this to out attention because today in many of our Christmas gatherings we will be with people who have hurt us. Yes, we may have been hurt, but how long do we make them pay for having hurt us? When does the cycle of meanness cease?

God responded to Joseph's heart anguish and prayers, and showed Joseph in a dream that Mary had indeed been pure and the child was from God.

Battle 3: The Battle for Trust

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

There comes a time when we have be willing to live by faith and not sight. Joseph was asked to trust a lot. That the baby was from God and not a secret lover was a big one. He had to trust that taking Mary as his wife was not going to backfire on him later. And here he is asked to name the baby Jesus, which means "God with us," the one who is going to save us from our sins. In his conservative rural town there were probably some people who might have gone ballistic upon hearing this. But Joseph trusted God in this, too.

We ourselves have trust battles. We trust that the Christmas story is true. We believe in the miraculous birth, and that He died on a cross for our sins. And that He rose again from the dead and has continued to reach out to our fallen world ever since. Do you believe all this?

If the Bible's account of the birth of Jesus teaches us anything, it's that our Christian faith is work. They fought battles that were not easy. Yet in the heat of battle, they felt the Spirit of God helping them along the way.

So it is with us today.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Getting It Right

Today's service was a very special time today. With a seriously cold, crisp morning greeting us this morning, the warmth of the sanctuary was especially nice. But the service was special not for this reason alone. In addition to being Communion Sunday and the second week of Advent, Pastor Brad's message was profound in its simplicity and directness.

After the greeting there were several announcements.

1. Poinsettias are always appreciated this time of year. If you would like to bring one we will decorate the sanctuary with them.
2. The special concert featuring Christina Deloach and music from her new CD, Father's Heart. Invite a friend.
3. Wednesday eve at 6:15 there will be a practice for all the children in the Christmas program.
4. The annual cookie drive is on for inmates at the St. Louis County jail. Due to allergies, no nuts or coconuts please.
5. If you would like to contribute to make this Christmas special for the needy family we're sponsoring this season, contact Pam Johnson.

It was also announced that everyone was invited to the Shannons after the service for food and fellowship, their way of thanking us for the privilege of serving Christ with us.

Darlene's introit led us into a time of worship, offering and prayers.

Getting It Right
Brad began by asking if any of us have experienced "buyer's remorse." Nearly everyone was familiar with the concept, and he compared it to the feeling many of us feel the first week of January when someone asks, "How was your Christmas." Instead of having given to the poor or reaching out to friends or doing other things of value, we all too often feel like we missed the point of it all, again.

"What if we decide that this year we're going to covenant together to get it right?" he said.

Before presenting his points he noted that this message was just as much for himself as for us. Too often we can get caught up in Christmas parties and other activities, never really taking time to read and contemplate the Christmas story, which he proceeded to read for us, from Luke 2:1-20.

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ[a] the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Brad's message today focused on practical things we can do when we walk out the church doors and re-enter the world we inhabit.

1) The Nativity Scene
Pastor Brad shared a couple of the thoughts he's had when driving past a nativity scene in someone's yard. "Who's got the time to put that up?" he said... and "Where do they store all that stuff the rest of the year?"

Then he gave us a new thought to call to mind every time we see a nativity scene: THIS REALLY HAPPENED IN HUMAN HISTORY.

He cited the Holocaust, and how it's one thing to read about it, and quite another to stand inside the showers that killed masses of people.

Brad also told about a friend who visited Israel experiencing first hand the very places which we have read about all our lives. The reality of it all came vividly to life.

So when we see a Nativity creche, Brad encourages us to remember, "This really happened in human history, and it happened for me."

2) Christmas Music
Next, Brad showed us a record album. It happened to be an Andy Williams Christmas album. "I'd like you to tether it (Christmas music) to a central truth, the song of the first angels who appeared to the shepherds: Glory to God in the highest, and Peace on earth to men."

People are anxious in our world today, but Jesus came to give us peace in our hearts, not only in this life but especially regarding eternity.

3) Christmas Cards
Brad held up a Christmas card from someone who wished them well. When we get a card it is nice to know we are on somebody's friendship list. But here's a verse that adds a dimension to this thought, John 15:5.

"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."

"We're on God's friendship list," Brad said.

4) Credit Card
Brad showed us a credit card, which a lot of people use this time of year. We all know how they work. We use the card now, and pay the bill later. This year, whenever we're using our credit or debit cards, Brad wants us to say, "I had a debt that came due one day & Jesus came and paid it... and it hurt Him. And I now worship You."

5) Presents
Brad then showed us a gift bag, a present. Sometimes presents are hard to accept. But what good is unexpressed love? Brad said we should thank God for the person who gave that give to us.

Think about this beautiful gift: God saw this broken world and came to us as a gift. As we open gifts say, "What an awesome God we serve."


As a transition into communion we listened to a recording of Christina Deloach singing Twinkle Twinkle from her first CD. Communion was especially meaningful as together we sang the Lord's Prayer and interwove other Christmas messages into a worshipful flow, an appropriate conclusion to a beautiful service.