Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Message for 2012

The Gift You Keep

John 15:5

Note: This is the message I delivered at our Christmas Eve service this year

Years ago, I was part of a Christmas Eve program at another church.  As part of the program, a couple of teenagers dressed up as Mary and Joseph and held a baby who was only a few months old, while our youth minister sang a song called, “A Strange Way to Save the World.”  The song is sung from the perspective of Joseph at that first Christmas, wondering why God chose to do things this way.  The chorus goes like this:

Why me?  I’m just a simple man of trade.  Why Him, with all the rulers in the world?  Why here beside this stable filled with hay?  Why her?  She’s just an ordinary girl.  Now, I’m not one to second-guess what angels have to say.  But this is such a strange way to save the world.

Our youth minister was an excellent singer, but he was a youth minister.  The spiritual gift of sarcasm is a job requirement.  In fact, I once said I was changing his title to “Minister of Ridicule,” and he considered it a compliment.  He just wasn’t what you would consider a tender kind of guy.  But as he sang this song, he started to choke up.  Tears were forming in his eyes and his voice was getting all husky and broken.  For a while, I thought he wasn’t going to be able to finish the song.  I was astonished; I didn’t even know the guy had tear ducts!  And then I suddenly realized: That baby those teenagers was holding wasn’t just any baby; it was his baby.  This was his first-born child.  Afterward, I talked to him about it, and he said, “I’ve sung that song before, but not since I became a dad myself.  I guess I’ll never be able to sing it again.”  He had grown up in church.  He had heard John 3:16 all his life: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”    But now, as he looked at his one and only son on that stage, he finally understood how much that cost God.  He thought about how much he would hate to give up his baby boy; how he would fight anyone to the death who wanted to harm his son.  On that day, he grasped in a way he never had before the amazing gift God gave to you and me in giving us His only Son. 

We all know that Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts.  Maybe the weirdest gift-giving tradition we have in our culture is the White Elephant gift exchange.  Sometimes this happens at Christmas parties; we all bring stuff we don’t want, put it in Christmas wrapping, and exchange it.  There’s a complicated game involved, where you have the option to trade your gift for something someone else opened.  People get furious with each other, and isn’t that the point of Christmas parties?  I’ve ended up with some truly fascinating stuff at these exchanges.  One year, I came home with a “Redneck Briefcase,” which was actually a pair of wooden handles glued to a large pair of men’s white cotton underwear.  You’ll be glad to know it has never been used.  Another time, I came home with a DVD copy of the film, “The English Patient,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but to my knowledge, no human being has ever actually watched the film.  I’ve heard that doctors prescribe it to insomnia patients, along with the sermons of certain Baptist preachers.  We’re all familiar with that tradition, but did you ever wonder why we call it a “White Elephant” gift exchange?

Apparently, long ago the King of Siam had a strategy for destroying his enemies.  He would give them a gift: a baby albino elephant.  Albino elephants are extremely rare, as you can imagine, and in Siamese culture, this animal was considered sacred.  So the recipient of the gift would feel obligated to take excellent care of this baby elephant.  As it grew larger and larger, caring for the elephant would take up more and more of the man’s time, money and energy.   Eventually, the man would be utterly destroyed because of this gift.

Ironically, the world tends to give white elephant gifts.  Often, the worst thing that can possibly happen to us is to get exactly what we wanted.  So a woman might get a job she’s aspired to for years.  But in order to keep the job, she has to work long hours.  She had always been active in ministry to the disadvantaged, but now she doesn’t have time.  Not only do the poor miss out on her service, but she becomes much more selfish as time goes by.  Or a man buys a house in an exclusive neighborhood, thinking he is truly providing for his family.  But he is so in over his head with the mortgage, he never has any money to give to God’s work.  He used to be generous, but now all his money goes to pay for the house.  Meanwhile, his kids grow up learning that what matters most is money and status, which is the opposite of what he hoped to teach them.  Or a family puts their child in a select baseball or softball or soccer league.  But the tournaments are all out of town and on weekends, so they are rarely in church anymore.  Soon, the entire family starts to drift spiritually.  Jobs, houses, youth sports are all fine things.  None of these are things invented by the Devil, but he can use them to warp us.  My question is this: Do you have any white elephants in your life?  Is there anything in your life that makes you say, “If not for that, I could be more consistent in worship, more active in ministry, more generous with my resources, more disciplined in drawing near to God daily?”  I am not saying you have to get rid of your white elephant.  But ask God, “What do I need to in order to re-orient my life around your plan?”  He will show you the way.   

   Compare that to the gift God gave us in Jesus.  He said in John 15, “I am the vine and you are the branches.  If anyone abides in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.  Apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Two things about that: First of all, He’s saying that He gives life.  Just like a branch gets its life from the vine it’s attached to, we get our life from our union with Jesus.  So the Devil uses gifts to steal life from us, to make us busy and bitter and stressed-out and tired.  But Jesus is a gift that fills us with hope, joy, peace, and transformed character.  The second thing to note about this is that Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”  If right now you’re not satisfied with your life; if you feel like you’re lacking something important, you might be tempted to think it’s a better job, a nicer house, or something else related to status or possessions.  And those things can indeed be blessings, but they’re not what you are lacking.  If you need more LIFE in your life, the answer is to focus on being united with Jesus.  Remove from your life whatever stops you from being fully committed to Him and dedicate yourself to drawing nearer to Him than you ever have before.  That is the gift you will never want to return. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas in Heaven

In just a few days, we will celebrate Christmas.  Based solely on the songs we sing and the cards we send this time of year, here’s how most people seem to think the story goes:  On December 25 in the year 0, a man named Joseph was trying to find a suitable place in Bethlehem for his wife to have their first child. But a cranky hotel manager took one look at this pregnant woman on a donkey and said “Hit the road!”  Fortunately, the innkeeper’s wife snuck Joseph and Mary into the stable behind the hotel.  This was a very unique stable featuring animals that never made a sound or went to the bathroom. The whole place was dirt-free, with reverent lighting and the smell of cinnamon and pine cones in the air.  There, Mary knelt down and, in a few moments of painless labor, produced a newborn baby with flawless skin and a golden halo around His perfectly formed head.  Like the animals, the baby also did not cry or go to the bathroom.  Ever.  Joseph was by this point useless, so Mary asked him to tear up strips of a satin bed sheet for Mary to wrap the baby in, figuring this was a job even a man couldn’t mess up.   Meanwhile, a group of shepherds who looked like bearded male models wearing LL Bean Hoodies were surprised by a group of angels who looked like naked infants with wings.  The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and see the new King, so they went immediately to the stable, which was easy to identify because a huge supernova star was sitting directly over it and the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus emanated from inside.  Curiously, no one else in town noticed this.  But soon some visitors from out of town arrived.  And so Mary, Joseph, and the baby were joined by three ornately dressed Kings, a little drummer boy, a crippled lamb, Frosty the Snowman, the full cast of the Nutcracker, and Joel Osteen.  After posing for a few pictures, the whole group went home, tucked themselves in for a long winter’s nap, and hoped that their names were on the good list so Santa would bring them a Nintendo 3DS in the morning. 
            Fortunately both Matthew and Luke give us separate accounts that tell us the real story of the birth of Christ.  But you may be surprised to know that there is a third account of the Christmas story in Scripture: Revelation 12:1-17.  I doubt any of you has ever heard a Christmas sermon on this passage, but it’s a Christmas passage nonetheless.  It shows us what the first Christmas looked like from Heaven’s perspective.  And it shows us what Christmas should tell us today.

 I'll be preaching on Revelation 12 this Sunday, December 23 in our 10:30 worship service.  I hope you can be there.  And I also hope you can join us for one of our Christmas Eve services.  Our 5:30 service is specially designed for families with young children (though all are welcome).  Our 7:00 service is a bit longer and more reverent in tone.  Either way, have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


As the song says, soon it will be Christmas Day.  I have to tell you, I am a confirmed Christmas junkie.  I love this season.  For me, the year isn’t complete until I drink some eggnog, watch Ralphie get his BB gun and George Bailey find ZuZu’s petals, and sing Joy the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing about a hundred times.  I say that because what I am about to say is going to make me sound like a Grinch.  But here it is: In a week and a half, when you open your presents on Christmas morning, please know that nothing you open is going to make you happy.  Oh, some presents you receive will probably delight you.  If you are lucky enough to get one of those nice cars with a big red bow on them—like they show in those Satanic commercials—I am sure this will be a Christmas to remember for you.  But guess what?  That car won’t last.  If you sold it on December 26, you’d get a mere fraction of what your dutiful spouse paid for it in the first place.  Even if there was a true Christmas miracle and you got something more than a trinket or a toy…even if a lonely single person met Mr. or Ms. Right, or a poor person got a better-paying job, or a chronically sick person suddenly got well…those things in and of themselves wouldn’t bring lasting happiness.  After all, Mr. or Ms. Right would quickly prove to be all-too-human.  That uptick in your income will be nice for a while, but you’ll find all that extra money doesn’t go nearly as far as you thought it would.  And physical healing is nice, but these earthly bodies will wear out eventually, anyway.  So Merry Christmas!  Actually, I have a Christmas gift for all of you this morning.  The Word of God tells us about the gift that keeps on giving, a treasure that brings true, lasting happiness.  Let’s consider Proverbs 15:15-17, All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Keep in mind, the guy who wrote those words was the richest man in the world at the time.  He was talking about contentment, a subject that most of us know little about and rarely (if ever) consider.  But contentment is a key virtue of the Christian life--as we'll see Sunday when we take a look at 1 Timothy 6:6-10, Philippians 4:10-13.  Not only that, contentment leads to a happy life, free from the grasping and envy that is common to our current rat race existence.  Come to Westbury Sunday, and we'll talk about how to live a life that is a continual feast. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mission Impossible?

Note: The following is an article I've written for the upcoming edition of The Westbury Word newsletter.  Since it talks about the direction I'll be headed in my preaching in the upcoming year, I thought I'd share it with all of you here...

One of my elementary school teachers had a bumper sticker on her desk that said, “Stop the world…I want to get off!”  Sometimes it’s easy for us as Christians to feel this way.  Things keep changing so fast in our culture, we can’t keep up with it all.  For example, many moral standards that once were a consensus in our culture—standards that come from Scripture--now seem to be ignored, even despised.  Increasingly, our neighbors are from other parts of the world and have no knowledge of Christianity; in fact, many are devout adherents of non-Christian faiths.  In addition, there is a rising trend of anti-religious sentiment.  Any public expression of faith is protested, even ridiculed, by a growing segment of the population (if you don’t believe me, read the comments online under any news story that has to do with faith).  No wonder even Christian thinkers talk about America as a “Post-Christian” nation.  So how are we called to respond?  Most of us grew up in The Bible Belt, where we were squarely in the majority.  We need to learn how to represent Christ in a non-Christian culture.  That will be the theme of my preaching in 2013.  At the start of the year, we’ll look at the obstacles we face, and how Scripture tells us to respond.  We’ll spend the rest of the year talking about men and women who have represented God well in similar circumstances (What?  You didn’t think we were the first ones to have it tough, did you?), and examine the characteristics God used in their lives to change the world.  Believe it or not, I think this is a time of great opportunity for followers of Christ.  I would rather be alive today than at any other time in history.  God is doing amazing things, and He has plans to use us—His people—in spectacular ways in a culture that seems to have forgotten Him.  The mission we have seems impossible, but all things are possible with God.  I hope 2013 is a year in which He does greater things in Westbury than we’ve ever seen before!

The Scandal of Salvation

"I have good news," says your doctor.  Your eyes light up.  This is exactly what you were hoping for as you sat uncomfortably on the little paper sheet in his claustrophobic examination room.  Those medical tests were painful and invasive, and the hours since have been stressful, but now it seems relief is at had...all the worry and pain will soon be a distant memory.  "Yep good news indeed," he says, and then lays it out for you: "You ARE in really bad shape.  You COULD die any minute now, in fact.  But the good news is that if you radically adjust your diet, begin to exercise regularly, take these medications I'm recommending and take an anger management class, you just might live a few more years."  You swallow, take it all in.  "Doc, that doesn't sound like good news to me." 

As Christians, we believe in something called the Gospel. Literally, that word means "good news."  But--let's be  honest here--most of us don't really see what's so good about it.  Most of us tend to think it is more like a list of obligations and rules than an "all-clear" from our doctor.  That's because we've forgotten what the Gospel really is.  This Sunday, the start of Advent season, we'll be looking at Romans 3:21-26, a passage that lays out the Good News in all its glory.  We'll also be taking the Lord's Supper together. 

But to be honest, there are truths in Romans 3 that people--both religious and irreligious--have a tough time accepting.  Good news or not, some parts of it are tough for us to swallow.  We'll unpack the Good News this Sunday.  I hope you'll be there. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why We Fight

Five years ago, a British man videotaped his two little boys Harry and Charlie.  He then uploaded the video onto youtube.com, so that the boys’ godparents, who lived in America, could see it.   Somehow, that little one-minute video began to spread virally.  Today, that video has been seen over 400 million times on the internet.  Harry and Charlie are celebrities with their own fan clubs.  What did these two kids do in this video that was so remarkable?  They don’t sing or dance or tell jokes or juggle.  Three year-old Harry has one-year old Charlie in his lap.  He reaches his finger around and sticks it in Charlie’s mouth.  Then he gets an expression of pain on his face, pulls away, and says, “Charlie bit me!”  Then he smiles.  And he reaches his finger around and, very deliberately, puts it in Charlie’s mouth.  This time, he yells “Ow!  Charlie bit me!  And it really hurt, Charlie!”  There’s been a lot of debate online as to why this video is so popular.  Some think it’s because the kids are so cute with their British accents.  Others think it’s because the video is so simple and authentic, obviously not some hyped-up grasp for attention and fame.  What nobody ever asks is the obvious question: Why does Harry keep putting his finger in Charlie’s mouth?  Doesn’t he know there’s nothing in there but pain?
 Click here to watch: Charlie Bit Me!

That’s the story of our lives.  We keep on putting our finger in Charlie’s mouth.  
  •  A second-grader yells at his teacher and earns a trip to detention. 
  •  A teenaged girl who is otherwise intelligent and socially healthy suddenly decides to spread a rumor about another girl which leaves her feeling so ostracized she considers suicide.   
  • A man and a woman who promised to love one another "as long as they both shall live" decide that they can no longer even live in the same house.   
  • A church full of people who share the same beliefs on the most important questions of life let division and conflict separate them to the point where they have to split into two churches.  
  •  A nation invades a smaller nation, leading to years of warfare and hundreds of thousands of people killed, wounded or impoverished.   
Why is it the same old story, over and over again?  Haven’t we seen the results of conflict in the past?  Don’t we know that fighting doesn’t solve anything?  Didn’t it hurt the last time Charlie bit me?  So why do I keep putting my finger back into his mouth?  I don’t know about you, but I want to know the answer to that question.  I’m tired of being bitten.  Fortunately, James 4 tells why we fight.  And even better, it tells us what we need to do if we want to live in peace.  This Sunday, I'll be preaching on this passage, and my prayer is that seeds will be planted that lead to reconciliation and peace in many lives.