Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Hope of the World

Upon greeting us Pastor Brad reminded us that Christmas is not just a day, it's a season, a season in which we celebrate Jesus breaking into the world that we might experience hope.

After singing a number of Christmas songs, Brad read to us the passage in Matthew 2:13ff which has come to be known as the slaughter of the innocents. It's a dark feature of the Christmas story and a reminder that there is real darkness in the world, and real sorrow. In the midst of this darkness Christ sent His son to bring humankind a real hope.

The Hope of the World

Brad began his message by reminding us that Jesus said, "When all your hopes are disappointed, put your hope in Me." Beginning with this notion, Pastor Brad threaded a number of images together from the Old Testament to paint a picture for us of what that hope is all about.

In Genesis 1 there is an image of God at the very beginning hovering over creation, which is as yet formless and void, hovering like a dove. At the culmination of this creation account we see God breathing the breath of life into a lump of clay, breathing his spirit into something inanimate to make life, to make a man.

This man, and the woman whom God created with and for him, were designed to work in partnership with God for the purpose of tikkun olam, which means to help the world realize or achieve its full potential. The world was not "complete" when He finished creation in the sense that His design included giving Adam and Eve responsibility to help complete God's plan in partnership with God.

Brad next brought us to Genesis 3:7 where Adam and Eve have violated God's instructions regarding eating the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Brad pointed out the phrase, "and their eyes were opened." What did they see? They saw their shame and guilt. The ground itself was cursed, thorns and thistles grew and things changed. They were exiled from the Garden and lived in a condition of permanent exile, the consequence of sin.

After many generations, God found a man whose offspring would become the tribe of Israel, the people who would partner with God to fix the world. But things went wrong and ultimately even these people of the Promise were exiled from their native land. Prophets spoke of a day that would come when all would be made right again, but many centuries passed.

Brad next cited Mark 1, the account of the baptism of Jesus where it say Heaven was torn open and the Spirit descended like a dove. What did this mean? It meant that the wall of separation had been broken open, the separation between God and man.

Brad then shared texts showing how the people of Jesus' time began to get their hopes up. They had been exiled, they had been defeated, but here was a hope for Israel. Could this be the one?

There had been others. Historians and Scripture record stories of several others in whom the people of Israel had hoped. The Romans crucified each, wrecking the hopes of those who had imagined this was the time of God's breakthrough.

In this context Brad retold the story of the pair on the Emmaus road.

Jesus, like so many others, had been taken by the Romans and executed. Luke's post-resurrection account tells of two people leaving Jerusalem, their hearts having been broken by all that occurred there. They were joined by a third person as they walked along heavy with despair, telling the stranger what they had seen and heard. "We had hoped he was the one." They shared, too, how the women went to his tomb and his body wasn't there.

The stranger then recounted all the many ways that the Old Testament pointed to these exact things coming to pass. Afterwards they stopped to eat and in the breaking of bread the two recognized Jesus, their eyes being opened.

Just so we didn't miss the point, this is an echo of Adam and Eve's story when their eyes were opened, only a reverse effect.

So, too, Brad shared another parallel. When God finished the Creation, He rested. At that point His work was finished. This did not mean that there was no more work to be done. He entrusted the work to Adam and Eve, and gave them authority along with that responsibility.

And when Jesus hung on the cross, His own last words were, "It is finished." It was a different kind of work He had completed. It was the work of bringing redemption to the world. But as it was in the beginning, Jesus had done His part and entrusted the completion of the work to His disciples, not only giving them responsibility but also authority.

Before ascending Jesus breathed on them, just as God breathed into the inanimate clay bringing Adam to life. And in the same manner breathing life into Jesus as He lay in the tomb after being put to death.

Brad compressed all these anecdotes and instances into a picture that he hoped we would understand with new clarity. We are God's agents designed to partner with Him in fulfilling His purposes in the world. We are to be light-bearers and hope-bringers in a dark and hurting world.

May Jesus Christ be praised.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Service: Let There Be Light

Our Christmas Eve service was again very special. Led by Pastor Brad Shannon, our time together included much singing and special music that included several contributions from our Homegrown Quartet and Shylee Smith.

The theme of the service was light. Brad stated that the Christmas story is ultimately about light and resonates with us for that reason. When he was on earth Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." But when he ascended it was his aim for us, his followers, to be bearers of that light.

Let your light shine, and may your Christmas be wonderfully bright.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Our Worthy Model of Faith

Pastor Brad greeted us with a warm "Good morning!" and reminded us that it is the third week of Advent, noting for us that the message this morning would center on lessons from the life of Mary, "a worthy model for us from start to finish."

Announcements included a reminder that the Christmas program would be at 4:00 p.m. this afternoon.

The Scripture reading came from Matthew 11:2-11. After a time of prayer and praise, Brad spoke to us about the many qualities that make Mary's life worth studying.

Our Worthy Model of Faith

Brad began with a few light-hearted jests about the differences between women and men. He then called Janzyn to the front of the church to show us how young Mary likely was when she first appears in the Scriptures. The typical age for marrying in that culture was 15-17 years old.

The message consisted of 15 features of Mary's character and personhood, each beginning with the letter C.

1) Child
In Luke 1:27 we read that Mary was a virgin pledged in marriage to a young man named Joseph. She was but a youth.

2) Called
Her calling was supernatural in origin. The angel Gabriel was sent to notify her that she was to conceive and give birth to a son who would be seated on the throne of David and reign forever.

3) Confused
Her response is presented in a straightforward manner. She was a virgin. This was beyond understanding.

4) Curious
Yet she asks, "How can this be?" The angel responds that it will be a supernatural experience.

5) Cooperative spirit
Her response is not to fight it, but to accept it, to go with it. "I am God's servant. Let it be as you have said."

6) Composes a song
This was her response on the path to a great adventure.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Luke 1:46-55

7) Creative
The story of the birth of Jesus shows much about the creative initiative Mary took to turn a stable for animals into a home for the King of kings.

8) Ceremonies
In Luke 2:39 we see that Mary is a conscientious mother who sees to it that all the ceremonies were fulfilled.

9) Contemplative
There were many unusual and significant events surrounding the birth of the Savior. Scripture says that Mary treasured these things in her heart and pondered them.

10) Concerned
It's the well known story of the family going up to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve. He had become separated from his family and for three days Mary and Joseph searched for him. The story reveals the heart of a concerned mother.

11) Confidence
The story of the wedding in Cana where Jesus performed His first recorded miracle (John 2) shows Mary's confidence in what her son could accomplish.

12) Character
The incident in Luke 11:27-28 wherein a man from the crowd praised the mother who birthed such a wise son shows Mary's character. Jesus replied, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it."

13) Courage
Mary lived to see her son die, which is difficult for any mother. But especially painful was the manner in which he was put to death, with such brutality. Mary remained present to the very end, a courageous act.

14) Crushed
Seeing her son crucified had to have crushed Mary. Jesus even spoke to her from the cross.

15) Constant prayer
Acts 1:14 is the last time Mary is mentioned by name. Here we see that she is amongst the disciples, constant in prayer. Mary saw it all, from the beginning till the birth of the church at Pentecost.

It was here that Brad shared the reason for this message, a message for women. It is a great challenge to be a woman today. The culture puts so many unrealistic expectations on women that it is a form of crazy-making. You're not enough unless you are this or that.
The story of Mary offers three steps out of these entangling, confusing expectations. First, what are you called to? Having clarity about your call helps one to push aside all the distractions. Second, have courage to believe and to stand secure in your mission. Finally, be consistent and prayer. God has a plan for you. Without clarity about who you are, you become a sitting duck for every "should" that comes your way.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Peace on Earth

This morning we celebrated the 2nd Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation of the Lord's coming. Brad welcomed us and indicated that we would be taking a fresh look at the Christmas story found in Luke 2.

There were quite a few announcements, the most relevant being these:
1) Pam reminded us to bring food and gifts next week for the family we've "adopted" for Christmas this year through the Salvation Army.
2) The weekly Woman's Bible Study will be taking up a new theme beginning January, studying the Book of James.
3) This Friday at Mitchell Auditorium there will be a special Teen Challenge Christmas Concert.
4) There will be a Christmas Program practice this Saturday from 9:30-11:30.
5) There is also a need for 12 volunteers to bring two dozen cookies each for the Christmas program next week. A few helping hands for setup and cleanup are always welcome. The Christmas Program will be at 4:00 p.m.

After the offering, the second Advent candle was lit in conjunction with a reading. A time of prayer concluded with the beginning of today's message.

Peace On Earth

Brad opened by stating that our Christian faith is rooted in history. The people of the Bible were real people who inhabited real places. He then showed slides of various places he hopes to see one day, significant places in the Holy Land: the Jordan River were Jesus was baptized, the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calmed the storm, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

In the photo of Jerusalem the Dome of the Rock is prominent beyond the wall, and a church with crosses stands prominent in the lower left. It is clearly a crossroads. Three religions have roots here, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Nazareth, a small town of 600 in the days of Mary and Joseph, was 85 miles to the north. This was a simple town, not comprised of the country club set, but rather a blue collar time of ordinary people, poor, scratching out a life, living hand-to-mouth. An unlikely place for God to enter humanity.

They travelled the 85 miles to Bethlehem for the census, no easy hike at any time, but especially riding a mule when nine months pregnant as Mary was. Our familiarity with the story makes us forget the realities. Upon arrival they could find no room and slept instead with the animals. Mary was soon in labor.

The shepherds were equally unlikely people to be the first notified of the new birth, by angels no less. The shepherds of that day were the bottom of the barrel in terms of social class, living with their animals, smelling like animals. But to these common ones, the angel of God appeared, his first words being, "Do not be afraid. I bring you Good News..." And then a great company of angels appeared, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

Isaiah spoke of such a one who would given to Israel who would be called Prince of Peace. Yet today in the Middle East we see everywhere tension and conflict. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is where Muslims believe Abraham offered up Ishmael and is the place where Mohamed received the Koran.

The world is not filled with political tensions alone. There are also tensions in our homes and families, often amplified by the holiday season as it approaches. Emotional stress from fractured relationships is real and painful. Brad said that if he could give us anything for Christmas it would be restoration in our relationships.

The shepherds sought out the baby that was announced, saw and believed, telling Mary and Joseph all they had seen and heard. From there they went into the crowd city and told everyone what had happened. People were astonished when they heard.

Brad asked what Jesus would do to bring peace today? And what is our responsibility? An eye for an eye never brings healing. Someone must die to self for healing to begin.

If more of us would live as peace makers... Isn't it about time we bury our hatchets? The Christmas story reveals a God who does miracles. Have we lost faith that God can still do miracles?

In John's gospel Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27)

Gwen Cresman then came forward and sang a song from her heart to usher us into Communion, first reading the following two passages.

Isaiah 26:3
You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.

Luke 2:14
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Our traditional Christmas Communion followed.