Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve message

Please note: This is the message I plan to preach at our Christmas Eve service. There's a link in the text to the Rick Reilly story I referenced, in case you want to read the entire story.

A few years ago, I came across a list of famous people who had changed their names. Did you know that John Wayne was born Marion Morrison? I guess he figured Marion wasn’t a good cowboy name. Cary Grant probably wouldn’t have become a suave leading man if he had kept his birth name, Archibald Leach. And Fred Astaire would have had a harder time making it as Hollywood’s most graceful song and dance man as Frederick Austerlitz. There are plenty more examples: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Reginald Dwight became Elton John. Leonard Slye became Roy Rogers. Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey Rooney. Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr. Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette. Thomas Mapother IV became Tom Cruise. Roger Nelson became Prince, who then became the artist formerly known as Prince, who then became irrelevant. And then there’s Maria Rosaria Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza. You might know her by her show-biz name, Charo.

These people wanted to project a certain image, so they chose a new name. Interestingly, the Bible says that God goes by several different names. All of them are chosen by Him not to project a certain image, but to help us understand who He really is. There are names that speak of His sovereignty, like Yahweh, which simply means “I am.” There are names that speak of His power, like El Shaddai, “The Almighty God.” And then there is the name God chose especially for Christmas, Emmanuel. It means, “God with us.” That’s appropriate, because it was that first Christmas that God truly became one of us, entering our world as a baby, destined to redeem all who would believe in Him.

That name, Emmanuel, teaches us an important lesson. There have been religions on earth since the beginning of time, and most of them have presented a very skewed perspective on who God is. He has been depicted as aloof and angry, someone who needed to be pacified, lest He strike us all with lightning or the plague. Even Christianity has often goose-stepped its way into legalism and judgmentalism, presenting a cold, unsmiling, Hell-fire and damnation deity. But when God actually appeared to us in human flesh, He turned out to be quite different. Oh, Jesus was fiery in the face of injustice, and He could get angry when He saw things that weren’t right. But it turned out that He was a friend of sinners, the very sort of people that religion had been giving the cold shoulder for centuries.

Just yesterday, I read a story that reminded me of this. It affected me so much, I rewrote this message just to fit it in. It comes from a story written by Rick Reilly (which you can read at http:// The Gainesville State School is a maximum-security correctional facility for boys north of Dallas. Like most high schools in Texas, they have a football team. But the Gainesville Tornadoes aren’t very good. They only have 14 players. They have no cheerleaders or band. They have no fans, either, unless you count the 12 uniformed officers who come to their games. (all of which are on the road, by the way) with their weapons and handcuffs at the ready. The Tornadoes play with ancient equipment. And they lost every game this year. Late in the season, they were scheduled to play the Faith Lions, a Christian school in Grapevine. Faith had 70 players, brand-new equipment, hundreds of involved parents and other fans, and a much better record. And so Kris Hogan, Faith’s coach, had a very unusual idea. He sent out an email to the players and fans asking if they could do something to make this game a little different for the Tornadoes.
So when the game began, the 14 boys from Gainesville were stunned to find that they suddenly had fans…hundreds of them. They made a big paper banner for them to run through. It said, “Go Tornadoes!” During the game, the Faith fans cheered the Gainesville boys on by name, with the help of the programs. The Tornadoes lost, 33-14. But considering the fact that they had only scored two touchdowns all year, it was easily the best game they had ever played. Afterward, the two teams gathered at mid-field to pray, and Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker shocked everyone by asking if he could lead. He prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to say thank you, because I don’t know how this happened, but I never would have known that there were this many people in the world who cared about us.” As the Tornadoes got back on their bus, they were each handed a bag, containing a burger, fries, a drink, a Bible and an encouraging note from a Faith player.
Here’s the best part of the story: When coach Hogan first came up with the idea, his own players at first didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Isn’t the point of football to crush your opponent? But Hogan explained it this way: “Imagine you had no home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.” That’s the story of Emmanuel. He’s a God who came to us when we didn’t deserve Him, didn’t even ask for Him, and said, “I believe in you. I love you. I want to redeem you. And so I will do whatever it takes, pay the highest price, to give you new life, life eternal.” He’s not aloof, and He’s not angry. In fact, He promises us access to the throne room of heaven. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 29:13, You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.
A lot of us here tonight are religious folks. We play by the rules, pay our taxes, replace all our divots. We tend to feel awfully good about ourselves. But this Christmas, perhaps the best thing we could do is to renounce our religiosity and get back to really seeking after Jesus. Maybe that means we get involved with a small group Bible study in 2009, so we can stop just sitting in the audience and start growing in community with other Christians. Maybe it means instead of just rolling out of bed in the mornings and heading off to work, we’ll carve out some time to connect with God through prayer and Bible study. Maybe it means we’ll start looking for opportunities to show the love of Christ to people around us, using our gifts to advance God’s Kingdom. A week from this Sunday, our entire church from the youth group up will begin a five-week study called Reaching for the Prize. If you are willing to put in the work, I believe that experience will help you truly seek after God with all your heart. If you do, you’ll find Him, and it will be the best Christmas present you could possibly give yourself.Chances are, there are also plenty of people here who don’t really fit into the church-every-Sunday crowd. We’re awfully glad you’re here, and I hope you feel welcome in this place. Maybe you came because you were looking for hope, for answers. Maybe someone invited you, and you didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Maybe this just felt like the right place to be on Christmas Eve. Either way, I want you to know that the God who made you loves you more than you can ever know. You may not know what you believe about Him, but He believes in you. And He wants to be your Emmanuel. His promise is true for you too: You will find Him if you’re ready to seek Him with all your heart. If you aren’t sure that’s for you, if you are more interested in other things right now, I understand. Someday, I pray, you’ll be ready to come home to Him. But if you are ready, right now, if you want to see what God has planned for you, come talk to me. Jesus wants to reshape your life. This Christmas, the birthday of God’s son, could be the day of your second birth. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas

I hope you're having a wonderful Christmas season. I look forward to seeing most of you in one of our two Christmas Eve services (5:30 and 7:00). I won't be with you next Sunday, but Randy will do a great job in my place.

When we see each other post-Christmas, we'll be starting Reaching for the Prize (see the previous blog posting for more info). I'm already praying that this campaign will draw us closer to God that ever before.

So until then, let me leave you with this thought about the birth, life and death of Jesus, from Eugene Peterson:

"Though there were auspicious signs that preceded and accompanied his birth, preparing the world for the majestic and kingly, the birth of Jesus itself was of the humblest peasant parentage, in an unimportant town, and in the roughest of buildings. He made a career of rejecting marks of status or privilege: He loved lepers, washed the feet of his disciples, befriended little children, encouraged women to join his entourage, and, finally, submitted to crucifixion by a foreign power."

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

...unless you're a music minister, that is. I get a Sunday off this week, but Kyle and his choir and orchestra are burning the candle at both ends getting ready for our annual Christmas concert this Sunday. I hope you'll be there. I know they will do an outstanding job reminding us of the glory of the God we serve...Emmanuel, God with us.

Don't forget about our two candlelight services on Christmas Eve. And yes, I will get to preach once more before then, on December 21. Next week, I'll give you a little preview of that message here.

In the meantime, here's news on Reaching for the Prize, the spiritual growth emphasis we'll start on January 4 (this article will also appear in your next issue of the Westbury Word:

If you watched the recent Olympics, you probably found yourself inspired as I did. No, I’ll never ran as fast as Usain Bolt, or dunk a basketball like Lebron James and the rest of our basketball team did. And I will never have abs like Michael Phelps (sigh), not to mention his eight gold medals. Yet I found myself marveling at the thought of experiencing a Christian life that would be that exciting and victorious. Imagine no more stumbling into the same old sins, wallowing in the frustrating quagmire of temptations we thought we had overcome. Instead, we conquer sins, standing in the glory of growth and achievement. Imagine a spiritual life where we always knew where God was leading us, and so spiritual disciplines aren’t dull and difficult, but refreshing as an early-morning swim.

Actually the analogy isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound. Paul was rather fond of comparing the spiritual life to athletics. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run is such a way as to get the prize (1 Co. 9:24). Those aren’t just empty words meant to encourage people who are born losers; God’s Spirit is constantly working to make us spiritual champions: Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). All we have to do in order to experience that renewal, that victory, is to get on board with the training program God has already custom-designed for us.

With that in mind, Westbury will begin a spiritual formation campaign called Reaching for the Prize on January 4. For five weeks, all adult and youth members of WBC will be challenged in three ways:

· A daily devotional guide.

· Weekly Bible study lessons led by your own Bible study teachers.

· Sermons that tie into what you’ve learned during the week.

I designed Reaching for the Prize because I believe that WBC should be an Open Door to New Life. That means that people who don’t know Christ should meet Him through our influence. But it also means that every one of our members—from those who have been following Jesus a few months to those who have known Him for decades—should be experiencing new life, consistent growth, and amazing victory. My prayer is that by the time you finish the five weeks of Reaching for the Prize:

You will know exactly what God is trying to accomplish in your life.

You will have a detailed list of goals for your spiritual growth, along with a plan to achieve those goals.

Your Bible study leaders and staff ministers will have a better idea of how to minister to you and the rest of our church.

Please be in prayer for this campaign.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Do You Believe In Emmanuel?

I am currently preaching an Advent series on the biblical name "Emmanuel," Hebrew for "God with us." Anyone who's ever received Christmas cards is familiar with the source of that name, Isaiah 7:14. ("The the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel"). But how many people know the story behind that prophecy? Who was Isaiah speaking to, and what was he trying to accomplish?

A 2003 survey revealed that Americans are more than 3 times more likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus than in the theory of evolution. As gratifying as that statistic might be to evangelical Christians, let's be honest: Believing intellectually that Jesus was born of a virgin is not true saving faith. Neither is the sort of presumptuous, "name-it-and-claim-it" faith we see promoted so often in the Christian world today. True faith is the ability to believe God's promises and obey His will even when it seems dangerous or foolish to do so. True faith is following Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death, when it would be easier to stay behind in the green pastures. This Sunday, we'll see the sort of faith God demands of us in the story of a little-known Judean king named Ahaz.