Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Old Familiar Story

A dusting of snow reminded us that we're moving into a new season here in the Northland, and with it is the commencing of Advent. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which is a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord's birth. The actual word means "coming of light" and for Christians it is a time of celebration. But more important, Brad stressed, is that "we get Christmas right." He would amplify this sentiment in today's message.

Today's primary announcements:
1) Be sure to bring your soup cans filled with coins next week for Covenant World Relief.
2) There is a sign-up sheet in the back of the sanctuary regarding how you wish to help our adopted family for Christmas. Our church desires to make Christmas special for a needy family with five children.

After the offering was taken, there was a dedication ceremony for Aarilyn Marie MacGregor, always a special time in the life of our fellowship.

Today's Scripture reading was taken from Isaiah 64:1-9. Brad then called all the children forward to read them the Christmas Story as it is relayed to us in the Gospel of Luke. Prayer for the needs of the church family followed and then Pastor Brad began his message.

The Old Familiar Story

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?" All too often we're frustrated because we expected too much or got too busy. 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.

Brad shared with us these words from his favorite Christmas card:
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

At the front of the church Brad had set out some items that would be familiar to most of us at this time of year. He wanted us to use these as object lessons for remembering some critical concepts or truths.

1) 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.

There was a time when God came into this world in human form, and amazing event that is the centerpiece of our faith. 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 Christmas CD. All too often Christmas music is nothing more than background noise for shopping or whatever else we're doing this time of year. We can choose to tune it out or allow it to affect us.

Brad suggested that we tether this music to the very first Christmas carol: "Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth and good will towards men."

3) Christmas Cards
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. God is a flawless friend.

4) Credit Card
Brad showed us his credit card, which a lot of people use this time of year. He asked us not to write down his card numbers right after showing it. The thought he wanted to sink home was what we should do during those 20 seconds after our card is swiped at a store, while the card info is being processed when making a purchase.

We all know how they work. We use the card now, and pay the bill later. That's the part that hurts. This year, whenever we're using our credit or debit cards, Brad wants us to say, "My moral debt that came due one day & Jesus came and paid it... and it hurt Him."

5) Presents
Brad then showed us a wrapped gift, a present. Sometimes presents are hard to accept. But what good is unexpressed love? People who love give. Love motivates giving.

What I needed most in my life was forgiveness. And it came my way as a gift.

Jesus Christ is God's Christmas gift to you and to me. God saw this broken world and came to us as a gift. As we open gifts say, "What an unbelievable God we worship."

"My prayer," Brad said, "is that we would get this Christmas right."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Becoming a Reflection of the Kingdom of God

Pastor Brad began the service by reminding us of the mission statement for New Life Covenant: Connect, Grow and Become. Connecting to Jesus Christ and to one another is a starting point, but God's design is for us to grow. Today's theme would be about becoming. Jesus talked repeatedly about the kingdom of God. It is not small matter. It is God's desire that we reflect the kingdom of God in this world.

Before entering into worship Brad shared that each year our congregation adopts a needy family to help make Christmas special for them. Next week there will be a sign-up sheet for ways you can help the family we have selected.

Thursday this week is Thanksgiving. This is a reminder that people who don't have a place to go and would like some friendly company on this holiday can join us at the church. Leonard will be cooking a special Thanksgiving dinner, to be served at 2:00 p.m. If you know someone who needs transportation, give us a call. The meal is free. Donations will help replenish the benevolence fund.

Last Wednesday evening was devoted to packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child. This morning the children brought these gift boxes to the front of the church, 68 in all.

After Darlene's introit, Brad and Darlene proceeded to lead us into worship, beginning with Lenny LeBlanc's beautiful song, Above All.

An offering, Scripture reading and prayer followed and then Brad presented the message.

Becoming a Reflection of the Kingdom of God

If we are to reflect who God is in this world, our community and how we connect really matters. Life is more than just meeting minimum requirements and treading water till we die.

What is the Gospel that Jesus preached? How would you respond?

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” ~Mark 1:14-15

Brad then read an overview of verses about this theme that so permeates the New Testament. THIS is the Good News, that we can live in the realm of God's power and reign.

The message of the Gospel is not about knowing the "correct answer" to get into heaven.

When Jesus said, "Repent" He wasn't just talking about changing your behavior, but was aiming at the idea that we must change our thinking. Jesus' Gospel is not only about the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life by grace, but it's so much more than that. Jesus lived a life designed to manifest the reality of the kingdom. He wasn't just putting in time until His death on the cross.

The change in thinking that is integral to kingdom living permeates every aspect of life. In Matthew 6 Jesus explains how far this goes.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Brad pointed out that in order to understand the kingdom of God we need to understand the meaning of kingdom. Essentially, it is the range of our control where our will has power or, in other words, our sphere of influence or rule. We may not sit on thrones or feel like we have a lot of power over the world, but the region where we do have power is the scope of our kingdom. It is you who decides what flowers to plant in your garden or where to build the hutch. Unfortunately, our kingdoms are junked up by sin.

There are bigger kingdoms than our personal ones. Families, towns, cities, nations are all a part of what is called the kingdom of earth.

The kingdom of God is wholly other. It is not geographic, but a realm where all that takes place meets with God's approval.

Jesus said that this kingdom, God's realm, is available to all who want it. In one place He stated that "whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This statement is not fully understood until we realize that a child was essentially the lowest rung in society, a non-person in the larger scheme of things. The kingdom of God is for people who give up on their notion of status. It is a community where everyone is beautiful and sensitive to others' hurts and needs and loneliness. It is a community where there is no hurtful gossip, no anxiety, and joy reigns. All of this is overseen by the Father of Jesus, who Himself is the origin of self-giving love.

When Jesus taught us how to pray it included the phrase "Your kingdom come." In other words, that God's kingdom of love and service up there would be manifest down here.

In contrast to God's kingdom we see a broken world where 80 countries practice state-sponsored torture, 8 countries cut off hands and feet as punishment, and millions of children die of starvation.

Jesus said that the kingdom is not intended to just be "up there" but also manifest down here, is intended to invade this earth, and it is through us, the church, through our community of faith that God aims to achieve this, reflecting the kingdom of God here in our time. Let's be this and do this.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Soil

Pastor Shannon often begins the service with some kind of anecdote or story that ties in to the message, but with hunting season underway Brad went a different direction and shared an amusing story that took place earlier today. There was a deer outside the Shannon home and Brad grabbed his rifle. Details included Brooke doing the SWAT Team hand gestures to give him directions once outside, but there was nothing to shoot by the time he was equipped and ready. "When I hunt, the deer have never been safer," he said.

Brad swerved to a more serious topic, the importance of connection, especially as it related to connecting people to the Good News of the kingdom and to purposeful living for God.

Conversion is not the same thing as growth. You make a decision to follow Christ, but you do not automatically morph into change or maturity. While it is true that only God can give growth, it is our job to remove the barriers to growth. This is part of what today's message would deal with.

The primary announcements this week include the following:
1) Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. we will be assembling shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child.
2) Elsa announced that Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. will be a movie night... all kids invited.

Chuck, Ken and Darlene led worship this a.m. with some traditional Gaither songs beginning with "It Took a Miracle." After several worship choruses. an offering was taken followed by a time of prayer.

Good Soil

Brad began with an Albert Einstein anecdote, following it with the point that Jesus was undoubtedly the smartest man that ever live. Yet, he did not spend any of his energy letting people know how smart He was.

His teaching style was to tell stories. Parables.

This parable, found in Matthew 13, as well as in Mark and Luke, is about a sower who went out sowing seed. It's a simple story, but designed to get deep into your hearts. Here's the passage from Matthew:

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

There is something amazing about growth. Parents love watching their kids grow, from their first steps to so many new thresholds. Growth is a sign of health, of life. When we stop growing, we start dying.

Brad talked about a condition known as Failure To Thrive (FTT). Thriving and growth are normal processes in life. So, too, in spiritual life. Growth is normal and expected. God wants us to thrive.

Ways we recognize spiritual growth are many. Sin becomes less attractive to us. Sharing our faith becomes easier. Speaking truthfully is increases in importance.

In the passage we see that Jesus sat down to teach. This was, and is to this day, a common way for rabbis to teach.

There are three elements in this story: the seed, the sower and the soil. Notice how the seed and the sower are constants. The seed is the same in all four situations, and the sower is lavish in his distribution of the seed. The sower, like God, is extravagant in sharing grace. The lesson is in the soil, the one variable in this parable.

Brad said it was time for each of us to do soil analysis.

The Hard Soil
A footpath is packed down and hard. Many of us have a heart that is hardened. Often it is because we have been hurt. There is a protective barrier around the heart to shield against additional pain. Bitterness, too, can lead to a hardened heart.

"Some of you have a hard spot in your heart," Brad said. We need to ask God, "Will you make my heart tender?"

Cynicism, or lack of gratitude may be the cause of the hard soil. This is soil that needs to be softened somehow, or plowed. It may take tears of repentance to soften the soil. There is a pain that is worse than the plow however. It is the sterility that comes from a hardened heart.

The Shallow Soil
In order for seed to thrive, the soil needs to be both soft and deep. In much of Israel there was bedrock below the surface. Roots can't go down into that kind of land.

Richard Foster wrote that superficiality is the curse of our age. Our lives are lived on the surface and we do not invest time to go deeper in our relationship with God or with others. People all too often bail out when things get hard. Roots require time. Relationship with God requires time, unhurried time.

The Cluttered Soil
Jesus said the third kind of soil is covered with thorns, thorns that crowd out the good seed.

Clutter is dangerous, and a deadly enemy to growth. When the "cares of this world" clutter our minds, we need to do some weeding. The clutter can take many forms. Workaholics are crushed by one form of clutter. Becoming financially burdened can also clutter our lives with a low-grade anxiety that is distracting. Failure to weed out the thorns will lead to a failure to thrive.

Unfathomable Fruitfulness
Jesus says the seed sown on the good soil produces astounding fruitfulness, 100-fold, 60-fold or 30-fold.

But in a twist on the parable, Brad notes that we ourselves are not only the soil in the parable, we are to be seed sowers as well. In this regard we are to continue sowing and not lose heart.

In Mark 4:26 Jesus said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground..."

God gives the growth, but our responsibility is to keep sowing. Good seed can find its way into the smallest of cracks.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday

On the piano there were photos of loved ones who have passed that people brought today as we reflect on those who have gone before us who have influenced our lives in positive ways. These remembrances were used as a challenge to be that kind of person to others.

Brad talked about a vehicle he has in which the battery is always going flat. This story was an illustration of there being two kinds of people, those who fill us and those who drain us.

Events and Announcements
November 16: Operation Christmas Child. A larger than usual dinner will be served at church including desserts. Afterwards we will pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, an annual project of Samaritan's Purse.

Soup covers and labels were passed out to be placed on our counters for collecting loose change. The money raised by this ministry of our denomination goes to help meet many needs around the world including famine relief, digging wells and redevelopment of poor areas.

November 19 is a women's brunch at the Swamp Sisters. Join us at 10:30 a.m. for lefse and other homemade delights, or come a little earlier to take part in making the food.

A free Thanksgiving dinner will again be served at church for anyone in the community who would like to join us.

Congratulations to Shaun & Kim Frye who had a baby girl this week.

The Message

The Bible often tells us to encourage one another. Barnabas' name meant Son of Encouragement. This friend of Paul's was from Cypress, which meant that not being from Israel he would not have been able to help in the temple. He was excluded, yet he didn't stand apart and remain uninvolved. The Bible says he sold his land and gave it to the Apostles. He gave generously to a larger need.

Think of the people in your life who have helped you sacrificially in some ways. That's what we're called to be. When we give we tap into God's resources and into God's joy. If you are stingy you lose your joy.

No one trusted Saul, who became Paul, because he had persecuted the early believers. It says that they sent Barnabas to see him. Barnabas didn't let the past that people knew about Paul dictate what sort of person he would become. Instead, he became an advocate for him to the others, telling of his conversion. (Acts 9:26)

The message of the Gospel was now going beyond the Jews for the first time. Previously it had only been amongst the Jews. When the message went to the Greeks there was much drama and much change. Again, in this time of upheaval the people sent Barnabas who sees potential in people and gives encouragement. (Acts 11:19)

In the Bible when names are listed it is important to note whose name is listed first. Up until Acts 13 it is said "Barnabas and Saul" because Barnabas was considered more important. In Acts 14 it now says Paul and Barnabas.

Barnabas is the kind of person who is all about giving the other person a second chance, and giving the other person power. At a previous time John Mark had deserted them and Barnabas does not want to desert him. He wants to bring John Mark along and give him a second chance. We believe John Mark to be the author of the Gospel of Mark.

There is a great cloud of witnesses, people who have not deserted you, who have encouraged you. What will people say about you at your funeral? Who have you encouraged?