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The Cast of Christmas: The Angels

December 4, 2022

It's been called "one of the most beautiful Christmas carols ever written." But there is a tragic story behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Grief silenced him as he saw his country divided by civil war and his family torn apart. Right now, it is a new movie out in theaters telling the true story behind the beloved Christmas carol and its author. 

It's a poem but it's really a diary entry about Henry Longfellow, and his whole journey of faith. A man who had it all, lost it all, and had it come back again and be redeemed through the symbol of a bell ringing out more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor does he sleep." Longfellow’s poem is all about his struggle for hope and peace not only from war but in his own heart. 

When we look at the first proclamation of Christmas that came from heaven to earth through the voices of angels speaking to the shepherds, we are reminded of the eternal search for peace that all of us long for in the midst of our chaos and confusion: “A great company of the heavenly host appeared . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13–14).

One angel explained this good news of great joy for all people: that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. It’s important to understand that the peace the angels proclaimed was not a proclamation of world peace or a declaration of the end of strife and war. It was not a direct announcement that we can now get along with our neighbors. It’s actually much bigger and much more important than any of that. 

Through Jesus, the barrier of sin has been removed.  Now we have relationship and peace with God! The peace on earth Jesus brings is foremost the peace that we can have with God through Christ. This peace comes from faith in Jesus and the forgiveness that follows. We see an example of this in the woman in Luke 7 who “lived a sinful life” (verse 37). She washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and her hair. In verse 48 Jesus tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then in verse 50, Jesus concludes with, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 

Because of the forgiveness of sins, we have peace with God. No wonder the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest!” The angels declared that this peace belongs to those on whom God’s favor rests. The Lord’s favor rests on those who receive the truth and forgiveness of Jesus. As a result, they pass that truth along to others. The angels wanted the shepherds and us to continue to pass the peace

Because Jesus brought us peace with God, one of the greatest responses we can have to the amazing news is to become peace proclaimers in all our Christmas traditions, preparations, and celebrations. The truth is, most families experience relational

pressure and difficulties during this season. Nearly every family gathering has at least one relative who requires extra grace. For many families, Advent and Christmas actually bring more strife and conflict rather than less. 

As the ones who have received peace with God through Jesus, we have a special opportunity to proclaim peace in our families in a similar way to how the angels proclaimed peace to us. In Matthew 5:9, Jesus tells us, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This passage shows us that those who count themselves to be children of God join Him in the work of proclaiming His peace and making peace with others. Peacemaking is not the same thing as peacekeeping. When Jesus brought us peace with God, He didn’t create an uneasy truce; He brought us back into unity and harmony with God. Jesus didn’t tolerate us; He restored us. He didn’t make a way to endure being with us; He made a way to be near to us and develop a love relationship with us.

During this year The United Nations had sixteen peacekeeping operations around the world. This is how the United Nations explains these operations: “Our peacekeepers help prevent conflict to reduce human suffering, build stable and prosperous societies and enable people to reach their full potential.” We all hope they’re moving toward peacemaking, but peacekeeping is just preventing people from acting out on the hate that’s in their hearts. It tries to prevent conflict and keeps people from destroying each other.

Peacemaking goes much deeper. Peacemaking is what God did for us through sending Jesus. Peacemaking restores relationship.  It brings harmony. It goes beyond just avoiding and separating conflict and brings restoration, relationship, and unity. Jesus made lasting and restorative peace between us and God. Aren’t you glad the angels didn’t proclaim, “And on earth tolerance to those whom He decided to endure”? Aren’t you glad the angels didn’t proclaim, “And on earth God puts up with those on whom His favor rests”? Instead, He brought a true peace with God.

For many of us, the Christmas season is a reminder of the lack of peace we have in our families and our lives. Many of us have conflicts with parents, children, brothers, and sisters where we just want to survive the holidays without the same old fight and antics we experience every year. Many of us are struggling to keep it together and try to cling to whatever peace we can hold onto in our own hearts until it’s over. My friends there’s more for you than that this Christmas season. As a son or daughter of God brought to God through Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection, you don’t have to be a peacekeeper who has to try to survive the holidays. Instead, you can proclaim the good news of Jesus by being a peacemaker who lives, brings, and proclaims a peace that transforms and lasts. 

This is the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. Peacekeeping tries to appease, patch together, and keep everyone satisfied or just quietly disgruntled. Peacemaking deals with the underlying issues and brings healing and restoration. That’s what God’s Son did for us. What better way to proclaim and demonstrate what He’s done than to do the same in our families? We are all looking for  A Deeper Peace

One of the dangers of this season is getting so caught up in our traditions and so wrapped up in trying to create the idyllic holiday that we forget our real mission. James 3:17–18 reminds us, Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” This season we should be more concerned — not less concerned — with proclaiming the peace of Jesus. We should be centered on living out the Gospel with our friends and family. We all will make connections and have conversations with people that only come around during this season. Now is the time to pray for wisdom in those connections. Now is the time to consider how we can proclaim Christ through what we say and how we act. Now is the time to be wise as James describes it right before 18: to be pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. 

This season I am praying that God will give you and me the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as we interact with friends and family. I am praying that God will show us how to best proclaim the good news of Jesus by showing us when we should speak and when we should let things go. I have learned that just because you’re right doesn’t mean you’re being righteous. 

I am praying that this year you can proclaim His peace to your family and friends like you’ve never done before. If you typically have relational struggles during this season, remember that most people aren’t born annoying, rude, opinionated, and cruel. Despite how he acts, even your cousin Eddie was made in God’s image.

Remember that people become that way because of what this world throws at them and how they choose to respond to it. The one thing we all share is brokenness. The one thing we all need is grace. Remember that everyone is fighting a battle that we don’t know. We all choose to become better or bitter from the if in life.

A peacemaker who is working to proclaim Jesus will try to get beyond the rough exterior. A peacemaker will show mercy, remembering that even more than our opinions, everyone ultimately needs Jesus. Certainly, love can be tough. But sometimes love is quiet and just listens.

 In the midst of all the traditions, celebrations, and connections this season, don’t forget how precious people are to God. Even the most belligerent, difficult, and draining people are precious to God — so much so that Jesus came to earth so that they could also have peace with God. And before you proclaim peace, you first need to possess it No one expects you to be perfect. However, it’s difficult to proclaim the message of God’s peace when we’re stressed out, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Our proclamation must first begin with us accepting and embracing the peace we have in God. What a rare individual it is who knows what it’s like to be fully accepted for who they are just as they are. Yet that is our very condition simply because, in Jesus, God’s favor now rests on us. 

Despite all the talk of peace and grace in Christian circles, how few of us feel like we can just receive the love of God rather than needing to work for it or prove our worthiness of it. In the angels’ proclamation, we find nothing of our own effort to obtain peace with God — only the grace of God. We didn’t reach our Savior by going up to Him; rather, in Luke 2:11, the angel says, “A Savior has been born to you.” We didn’t earn His favor; His favor rests on us only because we accept it by putting our faith in the cross. 

In order to better proclaim the peace God brings to others this season, I encourage you to guard your own peace as well. In order to walk and remain in the peace Jesus brings, we need to be disciplined in where we allow our minds to go and the things we allow ourselves to think about. When it comes to living in peace and proclaiming peace, it’s possible to lose the battle in our mind before our interaction with others has even begun.  Have you ever had a fight or disagreement with a relative or friend that took place completely in your mind? 

If you are trying to win your arguments before they even get started, how can you possibly hope to bring and proclaim peace when you spend actual time together? Peace proclaimers use wisdom and patience instead of jumping to conclusions or quickly misinterpreting other people’s actions or intents. Peace proclaimers refuse to take offense when they feel slighted. They refuse to allow their own thoughts to turn a careless or insensitive comment into a personal attack. Peace proclaimers always hope, always believe, and always endure!

When he was sixty-three, Alvin Straight got in a disagreement with his brother, Henry. Separated by 240 miles, the two never spoke or met again for ten years. When he was eighty years old, Henry had a stroke. When Alvin heard the news, he decided it was time to reunite with his brother before it became impossible to do so.

At seventy-three, Alvin’s sight was too poor for him to get a driver’s license. So, Alvin loaded up a trailer with gasoline, camping gear, and food. He hooked the trailer to the back of a riding lawn mower and set off to see Henry. At a top speed of five miles per hour, it took Alvin Straight six weeks to make the 240-mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin in order to make peace with his brother. One month later, Henry recovered from his stroke  and moved back to Iowa to be closer to his family.[1]

We all know that you can’t make anyone change. You can’t make anyone do much of anything. But you can proclaim peace. How far are you willing to go to share the peace you have in Jesus with the people you know? Are you willing to take the first step? Are you willing to take a stand this Christmas for peacemaking?

The final words of I Heard the Bells are peace on earth, good will to men. And those words are not original to Henry. They are original to scripture. And they are the reason we celebrate Christmas, because Christ really did come to give us peace on earth. Alvin Straight went 240 miles over six weeks to be a peacemaker, and his relationship was restored. Jesus crossed the chasm of heaven to make peace with you. 

The angels came to earth to proclaim the news of “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14). In the midst of all our traditions, celebrations, and even obligations, will we put in the same effort? Will our lives make the same proclamation? Will you please pray with me? 

God of Creation, we thank You that You sent Your Son so that we can have peace with God. We ask that You increase our peace and pour out Your peace to others through us. This season let us be peacemakers who point others to the peace of Christ. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.

The Cast of Christmas: The Prophets

November 27, 2022

You officially have twenty-eight days of shopping until Christmas Don’t worry because we can shop any time of the day or night and just wait for the packages to arrive in the mail. They’ll do the work, and all we have to do is click and wait. If you have friends or family who enjoy waiting for packages, new gift options include gift-of-the-month clubs. You can sign your loved one up for the bacon-of-the-month club to receive two one-pound selections of artisan bacon every month. There’s a pickle-of-the-month club. And of course, there is the famous jelly of the month club. The gift that keeps on giving all year long. 

Christmas is certainly a time of waiting and expectation. You can feel the expectation build as children grow more and more antsy in their classes at school as they wait for the big day to arrive. As we prepare and wait, it occurs to me that the vast majority of our lives is filled with waiting and preparation while only a fraction is filled with actual experience, celebration, or doing stuff. Consider the Thanksgiving meal many of us recently enjoyed. How long did it take to prepare it? How long did it take to eat? 

Often when we think we’re finally doing stuff, we’re actually just waiting and preparing for stuff in a new location. We just brought our Christmas stuff down from storage in KY. We found some place to put it. If we stop to think about it, we really shouldn’t be surprised that life is filled with so much more preparation and waiting than doing, because in some ways preparation is the doing. In fact, preparation is often the point. The best use of our time on earth is to prepare our hearts to become more like Jesus and to help ourselves and others get prepared to meet Jesus in heaven. 

The entire Old Testament prepares and points us to the great moment when our Savior and Messiah came to save us from the curse of sin. The law and all the temple sacrifices show our need for a Savior. The slavery and sorrow of the Israelites point to the bondage we all face before we acknowledge His arrival. The prophets looked and longed for His coming.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah was inspired by God to look forward to His birth. In Micah 5:2, he wrote, But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Chris Tomlin’s modern hymn proclaims: “Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God incarnate here to dwell . . . Praise His name Emmanuel.”[1] 

The one from ancient times whom Micah wrote about has more than one hundred different names in the Bible. He’s called the Alpha and the Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Light of the World, Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords. His name Emmanuel means “God with us.” And when Jesus arrived, He came humbly, quietly, in a small and forgotten town that didn’t even have room for His arrival.

 But let’s not allow the circumstances He chose to fulfill these prophecies confuse what child this is.  He is the Ancient One, the Creator, the Author and Giver of Life, the Word of God. For hundreds of years, the Israelites and the prophets looked to Him and waited for His rescue.

Advent is the perfect time for us to wait and prepare. As the prophets waited for Jesus’s arrival, we wait and prepare for His Second Coming. In some ways we know what Micah, Isaiah, Moses, and so many who looked for Jesus went through. Like them, we know Jesus is coming again, and we don’t know when. Like them, we need to prepare our hearts to receive and grow in Him now as we anticipate the day when we will meet Him face-to-face. To witness His arrival, or we will soon meet Him at the end of our own lives. Either way, we must be prepared! 

And that Preparation Begins with Repentance You might say that John the Baptist was the last prophet who had to wait for Jesus’s first arrival. He shows us how to prepare our hearts for Jesus in our lives now and how to prepare our hearts for Jesus’s return. In Matthew 3:2, John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In verse 8, John says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In verse 11, he declares, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” 

Repentance in its simplest definition means “to turnaround.” So, John isn’t calling out, “You all better start feeling really guilty or bad for all the things you’ve done.” Repentance certainly can begin with feeling really bad. But what John is saying is, “Change your approach. Reconsider how you think about things, and begin to think and act differently.” 

Harvey went into the hardware store to buy a chain saw. He told the clerk, “I want one that will cut down about ten trees in an hour.” The next day, Harvey came back, and he was really upset. He said, “Hey, this chain saw only cut down one little tree in one hour.” The clerk said, “Hmm. Let me take a look at it.” The clerk pulled on the starter rope, and the saw started right up. Harvey looked at it in wonder and said, “What’s that noise?” Harvey needs to think differently and to change his approach. 

In the same way, Advent gives us an opportunity to consider our approach and make a change. Is this Christmas going to be like all the rest? Harried? Rushed? Stressful? Overwhelming? Or will we take our cue from the prophets of old who were waiting and preparing for His arrival? Will we allow this season to be one of reflection, adoration, and repentance? There is no better footing on the road to Jesus than a broken road with humility, understanding of our need, and repentance. As the psalmist tells us, “A broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). 

Despite the vast array of Old Testament prophecies  describing the birth, life, death, and purpose of the Messiah, there was at least one idea that caused the vast majority of the religious leaders to miss the gift when it came. When they looked for salvation, they weren’t really thinking about their need for salvation from sin. Instead, they were looking for salvation from foreign rule and oppressive government. And their mistaken belief about the mission of the Messiah became their most important conviction about Him. Let’s not make the same mistake. Let’s remember that we are in desperate need. Although our feelings may tell us otherwise, it’s not the need for a way to pay all our Christmas bills. We’re not so desperate for a way to get everything done that needs to be accomplished before Christmas. We are desperate for a Savior who will cleanse us from our sin once and for all. We are in need of the Messiah who came to die for what we have done and how we have failed. 

Preparation Increases with Expectation In 2001, the International Olympic Committee announced China would host the games. China had a vision and expectation and by 2007, China had built 6 venues. China used more than fifteen thousand performers for the opening ceremonies. Some of those practiced for sixteen hours every day. There is much to be said about China’s human rights record, but I have to admit that they delivered during the opening ceremony. They had huge expectations, they made tremendous preparations, and they delivered amazing results. 

Have you ever considered how you would prepare for work or school if you expected Jesus to be sitting there when you arrived? How would you prepare for church if you knew that God Almighty was going to show up and meet you when you got here? How would you spend your time getting ready in the morning if you knew the Holy Spirit was just waiting to tell you something amazing as soon as you were ready to listen? 

If we had such expectations, surely it would affect our preparations for each season and even each day. 

Actually, Jesus will indeed be at work and school when you arrive this week. God is always ready to meet you as you reach out to meet God. God’s Word is alive and active, and God is willing to speak to us if we are willing to read and listen. Perhaps knowing that Emmanuel is here with us now, was here with us yesterday, and will be here with us tomorrow should change the way we prepare for Christmas, work, school, church, and even tomorrow morning. 

And that Preparation Brings Fruit There is one test that demonstrates whether or not you or another person has repented: our behavior will change. If someone commits a sin against you, and then does the same thing again, have they really repented? 

Maybe even apologized felt truly sorry and said they would not do it again. However, the fruit of their life shows whether or not they had a change of heart. In the same way, the fruit of our lives shows our preparation through repentance. Sometimes the change is incremental, and it takes time until it’s complete. But if you aren’t walking away from the sin, you haven’t repented of the sin.

Maybe the difference between feeling sorry and repenting is found in understanding and seeing the real damaging impact and ugliness of the sin and saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes to never go there again. Our sincerity is proven in the way we live, the help we seek, the prayers we offer, and the choices we make. Do you want to know if you’re preparing for Christ’s arrival? Do you want proof that you are getting ready for Advent? Just answer this question:  “Is my life bearing fruit?” The test for a heart that is active in its preparation to meet Jesus is whether or not we see evidence of fruit in our lives. There are all sorts of varieties of spiritual fruit: increased service, a closer relationship with God, a greater ability to encourage or care for others, a stronger family life, greater peace, deeper love. Think of your life three or four Christmases ago.Do you have more fruit in your life? 

If so, keep going. You’re getting ready. You are effectively preparing. If not, it’s not too late to start bearing fruit.Turn around from complacency, indifference, busyness, or anything else holding you back. Draw near to Jesus in expectancy, and look for ways to fruitfully live out your faith. Christmas is coming. The Second Advent is coming. In our expectation, let’s get prepared for our:

Expected Rescue The promise Malachi and all the other prophets clung to was that they would be rescued. It’s so important that we remember our preparation is not our salvation nor is it our rescue. Rather, our preparation is our response to what Jesus has already done for us and in us. 

In 2013, the movie Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks was based on the true story of how Somali pirates commandeered a cargo ship. The captain convinces his captors to let his crew go while he and the pirates leave the cargo ship together on the lifeboat Somalia looking to cash in on the captive captain.One of the best moments in the film is when  out of the darkness the horns of the USS Bainbridge thunder through the sea and floodlights illuminate the ocean and the lifeboat. You can see the relief and elation wash over Captain Phillips’s face. When the Bainbridge comes to the rescue, you know the pirates are in trouble and that a real hope has finally arrived. 

One thing I hope we understand about Christmas in the midst of the sentimentality of nativity scenes, in the soft sweetness of “Away in a Manger” is that Christmas was a rescue mission. And the One who came to our rescue wasn’t some outgunned or, outclassed. The One who came to our rescue was Emmanuel — God with us — who had the power and authority to call down all of the angels of heaven for His purposes and desires. 

The Ancient One humbled Himself to become fully man because we were the hostages being held captive by sin. Christmas was the beginning of a rescue mission that was conceived and carried out on our behalf by none other than God Himself. 

So, this Advent I am not expecting and preparing to be stressed out and overwhelmed. I am not expecting things to fall apart and be defeated. I am waiting expectantly for God to come through for you and for me. I am waiting expectantly for Jesus to be revealed in our lives. I am waiting expectantly for the plans He has for you, for me, and for this church. I am waiting expectantly for His kingdom to advance. I am waiting expectantly for His love to be made known to a hurting and dying world through you, through me, and through His church. I am waiting expectantly for Jesus to return. 

Emmanuel. God with us. God has come. We have been rescued. And through His rescue, we have been saved and brought back home. Because the rescue is complete, our best response is to prepare in great expectation of the realization of all that Jesus has accomplished when we see Him at the Second Advent. 

5 Fruitful Practices: Extravagant Generosity

November 20, 2022

Most of you have probably seen a Capital One commercial at one time or another.  One with Jimmy Fallon had an adorably antagonistic baby, Kylie. Jimmy says “The new Capital One Cash Rewards Card gives you a 50% annual bonus…so you earn 50% more cash.” He then jokingly points to a statistical chart saying, “According to research everybody likes earning more cash.”

 He asks Kylie “Would you like 50% more cash?” “No,” says an adamant Kylie. Jimmy not understanding replies, “But it’s more money.” Then baby Kylie throws Cheerios at Jimmy. The not-so-subtle point of this commercial is that you are obviously a crazy person if you don’t want more money. Everyone should want more money.

 In an ironic way, Kylie serves as a conscience for us as we watch this commercial – forcing us to ask the question of ourselves – “Do I want more cash?”

 Scripture is full of examples and teachings about possessions, wealth, giving, generosity, offerings, charity, sacrifice, and sharing with those in need. We talked about last week that if you removed the 2,000 verses related to these things the Bible would be in shambles. Giving is central for us as Christians because we serve a God who is extravagantly generous. Generosity is both a spiritual gift as seen in (Romans 12:8) and a sometimes fruit of the Spirit as given in (Galatians 5:22) We want to trust God and live by Jesus’ words to the disciples in Luke 12:15 to “take care and to be on guard against all kinds of greed;  for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Bishop Schnase suggests Extravagantly Generous congregations teach, preach, and practice proportional giving with a goal toward tithing (giving ten percent.) They encourage their church members to grow in the grace of giving as an essential practice of Christian discipleship. They thrive with the joy of abundance rather than starve with a fear of scarcity.  They give joyously, generously, and consistently in ways that enrich the souls of members and strengthen the ministries of the church." Abundance, from this perspective is not having more than you need. Abundance here is whatever it is God has blessed you with thus far (large or small).

Malachi 3:10 tells us…you can’t outgive God

In his words to the church at Corinth in 2 Cor 8, Paul is sharing what it means to be a church that practices extravagant generosity, using the giving of the church of Macedonia for the collection or gift for the saints in Jerusalem as an example of giving that was done out of love and grace of God they had received. His words are very much in line with the practice of extravagant generosity. 

Verses 1-4 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 

Extravagant generosity is extraordinary support for mission, connectional ministries like what we call our apportionments (a portion meant for others given to our denomination for the greater good), and organizations that change people’s lives. The church at Macedonia gave out of their affliction and extreme poverty. It was a privilege to give to people they did not even know and they experienced the wealth of generosity which resulted in joy rather than the fear of scarcity. 

Their lives had been changed by the grace of God which led to them giving beyond their means. How do we understand wealth from this passage? This passage is an example for the way we should set our priorities for spending money. Do we spend with God’s purposes in mind as we give thanks to God in all circumstances for God’s blessings and grace?

I quoted Winston Churchill last week but his words are worthy of repeating this week: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” If we make a life by what we give…perhaps we make God’s life by what we extravagantly give. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the term “extravagant giver?”

If you automatically picture a wealthy person – the kind of person who you hear about on the news because of their generous philanthropic gifts to non-profits…the kind of generous gift that gets a building named after you – then we are looking at extravagant giving through a skewed lens. The truth of extravagant generosity involves a bit of a paradigm shift. Here’s the reality: any one of us can be an extravagant giver, regardless of our wealth or lack of it.  In fact, each and every one of us is an extravagant giver just waiting to be called to action.

5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us

Bishop Schnase says churches often do not have enough money because they do not provide sufficient ministry and mission for their people to engage in. When the focus changes from one on income, survival, and maintenance to one on changing lives, reaching out to new people, and offering significant mission giving increases. That is my theology as well…

Extravagant generosity is measured more by what goes beyond the walls than what is used to keep the institution going by paying the bills. Generosity is stretching ourselves to lift the burdens of others, whether financial, emotional or spiritual, as the hands and feet of Christ. We make sacrifices so someone else will know his grace and love. 

When the world says “earn all you can and give out of your abundance” the fear of scarcity comes into play by the question “what if…” What if I don’t have enough for myself? What if the stock market fails? What if I don’t have this or that in the future? Biblical teaching is that true abundance comes from cheerful giving. Paul addresses this with Timothy as he writes to him in 1 Timothy 6:17

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money; which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage – to do good, to be rich in helping others,  to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life. 

And sometimes I think we believe this passage does not apply to us because it begins with “as for those who in the present age are rich” – and we are thinking “I’m not rich.” When we think of somebody who is rich we usually point to somebody besides ourselves. Rich is always somebody over there in a bigger house, nicer car.

But the fact that we are sitting here today in this climate-controlled sanctuary, worshipping freely in a 1st world country, with coffee brewed and food awaiting us after worship, with smart phones in our purses and pockets…a car outside means we’re rich. Each and every one of us. Studies have shown that rich is always about 10,000 more than whatever have. 

Most of us have it a lot better than those who live on $2 or less a day in third world countries like Haiti and Honduras. The Macedonians understood giving as those who had given themselves to God. Does our giving reflect who we are as a church as it did for the one in Macedonia? Does our giving reflect who we are as a faithful follower of Christ? What would Paul write about or to us?

7-9 Now as you excel in everything —  in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,  that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Extravagant generosity includes all that we do and comes from hearts in love with God, not duty, guilt, or to meet a budget of anticipated needs of the church. I have learned over a quarter of a century as a pastor that there is no amount of teaching, coercion, begging or pleading that can influence our giving. What we give in any way comes from our prayer life and our practice of spiritual disciplines as we grow further and deeper in our relationship with God. 

As we intentionally develop our faith, we grow to understand the richness that Christ has given us and his generous actions of love lead us toward generous undertakings. What does the church at Macedonia tell us about being rich in God’s sense of the word?

12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have. It tells us Extravagant generosity is giving with an eagerness according to what we have not what we do not have. It includes all of our resources including our time. What we treasure is reflected in what we are willing to complete with perseverance as we join God in the work to which God calls us. Generosity enlarges our soul, realigns our priorities, connects us to each other, and strengthens our congregation and us as we fulfill the ministries of Christ.    

But it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

God provides enough when people share what they have been given. What would it mean today for those who had much not to have too much, for those who had little not to have too little? How do Christ followers learn to have enough, to be content? How do we live simply so others may simply live? How are we different from the so-called “American way – as Dave Ramsey is fond of saying we buy things we don’t even need with money we don’t even have to impress people we don’t even know .” 

We are spending money we don’t have and it revolves around our lack of contentment. We look at our lives and we struggle to be content. The things God tells us we should be content with we aren’t and the things that God tells us we should be discontent with we are not. Jesus tells us that if he will take care of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air he will take care of us. We should be content with life’s little things. Yet we are discontent with what we have.  

We think we need to the newest and the most updated thing. We think our cars are getting old when they hit year three. We are discontented with 10 TV channels and think we need all 1000 channels of cable or satellite can provide. We need 500 mb internet speed when just a couple of years ago we would have been satisfied with 50. 

We can’t stand to settle for 3G for 4G now that 5G is here and soon we will all be thirsting for 6G on our phones. And now our iphone7 needs to be a 10 as well. And we are willing to stand in line for hours or days just to be first. And yet aren’t we often content with our two-minute prayer lives, the amount of the Bible we know and understand and actually read each day which is how much? and the time we spend in the presence of God each day. Out of 168 hours a week how many hours do you spend with God?  2-4 maybe 8. 

Doing the math even if you spent 8 that is only 5 percent of your time. We are content in our pursuit of justice and mercy and we are content to watch the suffering of the world happen because that is just how life works. At some point followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God. Spiritual maturity is when faith values shape us more than society values. A philosophy based principally on materialism, acquisition and possessions is not sufficient to live or die by as Christians. Money needs to be our tool not make us its fool.   

When we talk about extravagance – most of us think of a specific sum of money that is beyond what we make, let alone could give. But that is a false understanding of extravagance…and an incomplete understanding of generosity. Pastor and writer Nelson Searcy says, true generosity is not evidenced in how much a giver gives but in how much he or she has left.” Capital One is on to something though with their final question in every commercial: The answer to that question has everything to do with how we as a church are doing with “Extravagant Generosity. “What’s in your wallet?” As in, “what is left in your wallet?”

Are we more like the church at Macedonia or the church at Corinth? Are we willing to be a vibrant, fruitful growing congregation where we practice giving as we have been taught and that we do out of prayer and the spiritual disciplines that wash the Spirit of grace over our lives day after day after day?  

On this week of having an attitude of gratitude in giving thanks and being grate FULL. May we be extravagantly generous in all that we do. Amen.

Risk Taking Missions & Service

November 13, 2022

John C Squires in 1944 was serving as a private first class in the 3rd Infantry Division when on the night of April 23 at the start of his company’s attack on strongly held enemy positions near Padiglione, Italy, Pfc Squires, platoon messenger, participated in his first offensive action. He braved intense artillery, mortar, and antitank gun fire. Despite shells which burst close to him, Pfc. Squires made his way forward to the front and searched a new route of advance. Acting without orders, he rounded up stragglers into a squad and led them forward. With all the officers’ gone, he placed 8 men in position on his own. When his platoon had been reduced to 14 men, he brought up reinforcements twice. On each trip he went through barbed wire and across an enemy minefield, under intense artillery and mortar fire all around him. 

He engaged 21 German soldiers in individual machinegun duels at point-blank range, forcing all 21 enemy to surrender. Squires was killed in action a month later, after having been promoted to Sergeant. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in October 2, 1944.

Squires, was only 19 and was buried in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. In 2001, a memorial honoring Medal of Honor recipients from Kentucky was dedicated in Louisville. The memorial features a six-foot-tall bronze statue of Squires.

One of my FB friends shared this with me thinking that maybe this WWII soldier was my relative. And he just might be. The epitome of Risk-Taking Missions and Service. Thanks to all like him who have served.

Over the last several weeks we have been talking about the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. We began with Radical Hospitality shown in many ways, Passionate Worship that doesn't depend on style but on how we involve our head and our hearts, Intentional Faith Development that enables us to grow and mature in our faith and now Risk-Taking Missions and Service. You may not be familiar with our mission statement but it is on the front of your bulletin each Sunday to remind us every week.

At Nolensville First Our mission is to be a neighborhood church where people experience a life-changing relationship with Jesus in a welcoming church family. And how do we live out that mission? We distill it down to our vision Loving God and Loving Neighbor where we live. Our Vision is focused around what? Loving. I think we make the mistake thinking being a Christian is a noun when it is really a verb. British politician, historian, and writer, Winston Churchill, has said: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Today we are focusing on what we as a community of faith are giving to others in our community and our world. We have to decide just what kind of life we want to live: a life that so centered in Christ that we can’t help but serve, or a life so centered on ourselves that serving has to be squeezed out of us by others. Jesus said in Matthew 20:26 Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served."

In his book The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God Expect of Us?, Richard Stearns the former President of World Vision, said when my friend Jim Wallis was a seminary student, he and some of his classmates did a little experiment. They went through all 66 books of the Bible and underlined every passage and verse that dealt with poverty, wealth, justice, and oppression. 

Then,…[they]…took a pair of scissors and physically cut every one of those verses out of the Bible…about 2,000. The result was a volume in tatters that barely held together. Beginning with the Mosaic books, through the books of history, the Psalms and Proverbs, and the Major and Minor Prophets, in places like Micah 6:8 to the four Gospels, the book of Acts, the epistles and into Revelation, these themes are so central that if you remove them the Bible would be in shambles. 

The message of peace and justice for the world is God’s passion and it is literally the binding that holds all of Scripture together. We are called to reverse the way our world works – it is the same risk-taking missions and service that God has been calling us for centuries to engage in. And we as a church, the whole church, often don’t do it like we should. And why is that? because it’s risky business. Or maybe sometimes we have just missed it. Shane Claiborne founder of The Simple Way, a form of new monasticism and living in community, asked participants who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, he sneaked in another question. He asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. He said he learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesuswithout doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that Christians do not care about the poor but that Christians do not know the poor.

What does this have to do with “Risk Taking Mission & Service?”  Well, it simply highlights the fact that we Christians can be very quick to serve one another – and even the world – but we like to do so on our own terms. Not on God’s terms. Because God’s terms almost always involve risk. (Haiti this very week) Risk-taking pushes us out of our comfort zone, stretching us beyond service to people we already know, exposing us to people, situations, and needs that we would never ordinarily encounter apart from our deliberate intention to serve Christ. 

The thing is we need to serve these people and come to know them whether or not they will ever become part of our community of faith. We are here to connect to more folks who can be in service or served by Christ. There are no internal motives here. Only the motives of Christ that get caught in our heart - so much so – that they start to take root, allowing us to be a branch that bears fruit. Bishop Schnase  asks us this question: “What have we done in the last six months to make a positive difference in the lives of others that we would not have done if it were not for our relationship to Christ?” In risk-taking mission and service, both the servant and the served are transformed. 

The scripture we always think about when it comes to service is Matthew 25, the parable of the Great Judgment and it appears only in Matthew. Matthew puts it at the culmination of the teaching of Christ, just before he begins the Passion narrative leading up to Easter.  You’ll recognize it: “But Master, when did we see you hungry? Or naked? Or in prison? The key verse is this: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

The simple but highly profound truth is this: when we serve others, we serve Jesus Christ. Bishop Schnase says “The stretch of Christian discipleship is to love those for whom it is not automatic, easy, common, or accepted. To love those who do not think like us or live like us, and to express respect, compassion, and mercy to those we do not know and who may never be able to repay us – this is the love Christ pulls out of us. 

Risk-taking steps into greater uncertainty, a higher possibility of discomfort, resistance, or sacrifice. Risk-taking mission and service takes us into ministries that push us out of our comfort zone, stretching us beyond the circle of relationships and practices that routinely define our faith commitments.

We begin Room in the Inn this next week…and it is a risk. It is risking thing to look into the face of the homeless and see them as children of God and not just objects on the side of the road or street. To step outside our comfort zone and sit down with a stranger. 

Most importantly, Bishop Schnase says that churches that engage in risk-taking mission must be willing to live with disappointment, failure, and uncertainty: Part of the “risk” of real mission and service is the uncertainty of whether it will make any difference at all. It means many times we may go to great lengths to help those in our community and it still might feel like a drop in a bucket. We might work with somebody who’s dealing with alcohol and drugs…and they’re making it… until they fall off the wagon. That’s the risk part of risk-taking mission and service. [Because we’re all only human.]

And that is as biblical as you can get. It’s like the sower sowing seeds. There’s rocky ground, there are the birds that come and eat it all, then there’s the hard soil — there’s all of that. 

But the promise of that parable is that, by the grace of God, a harvest comes forth a hundredfold….Part of the “risk” is that this doesn’t work a lot of times, or that the difference we make is something that we don’t see. We don’t know. We can’t see the results sometimes. Who knows how our help and hospitality changes lives? 

But…out of our obedience to Christ, and our faith we have to try. And we have to keep it doing it no matter the effectiveness. Or, as former football player, Jim McMahon, puts it: “Yes, risk taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.”

Christ calls us to relationships. Not results. We are called to be fruitful but we called more to be faithful even when we are not fruitful. The question we must ask ourselves is a hard and probing question. It is a question about focus. Are we an internally focused church or an externally-focused church”

Let me ask it another way “Nolensville First, what is our impact? If our church were to leave this community tomorrow, would anyone (other than ourselves) notice, would anyone care, or be impacted?” Now I know the answer to that is a yes generation after generation. From all the things I have seen and experienced…

Pastors Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw in their book The Externally-Focused Church, say that most churches, blatantly or subtly, have an unspoken objective — “How can we be the ‘best church in our community?’” — and they staff, budget, and plan accordingly. But they say that becoming an externally focused church is not about becoming the best church in the community. The externally focused church asks, “How can we be the best church FOR our community?” That one little preposition changes everything.

“In” or “For.” As messengers, we Christians have a difficult task, not because the message of God’s Good News isn’t compelling, but because we aren’t always compelling messengers. Rusaw and Swanson share, “We decided to open our doors to other community organizations” and “We decided that, to love and serve our community, we must know our community...” and meet their real needs, not the needs we perceived or assumed they had.

We continue to establish relationships and connections in our immediate community that continue to help Nolensville First an indispensable part of our neighborhood.” Well how can we do that? We ask. Ask organizations, businesses, schools and neighbors around us what they need and how we can help. Find ways to communicate effectively to those outside of our doors that we are welcoming and affirming of all people and that we are here to help whatever it takes.

In recent weeks The Food Pantry has caught my attention. This is a big time of year for them, moving food, taping boxes, packing food boxes, packing extra bags, organizing for distribution, and then finally giving it out on Saturday. And I was grateful to see all their servant slots were full.

But the most important thing is not just to talk. We have to Act. We have to GO. And we would love to have a Missions Team full of people who love serving others. We would love to start all the ministry ideas that we have but we can’t without your help. Your enthusiasm. Your initiative. Your follow-through. Your presence in our community. Your gifts and skills. The why behind the serving opportunities time and talent in your hands.

And the good thing is – God will use ALL our efforts – our small efforts and our big ones. And it’s not up to us to be the sole people to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth as it is in Heaven. But it’s also not up to us whether we choose whether to be a part of that. It is all y’all’s call, risks and all. 

Some of you are already involved in amazing ways in mission and service. Thank you. Especially the RITI Leaders and volunteer servants making it happen this week and even on Thanksgiving.  But there are other opportunities to get connected to our community in new ways.We ask these crucial questions in our community:
What needs are there that have yet to be met? 
What are Christ’s purposes for us?
What does God have for you?

I want to close with this thought from sociologist, activist, and author, W.E.B. DuBois: “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”…

We might say at Nolensville First: what Christ is calling us to become? I believe that we are ready to move from where we have been to where Christ wants us to go. RAre you ready to risk? Are you ready to go? 

Intentional Faith Development

November 6, 2022

In the Peanuts cartoon series, you probably remember at times Lucy was in business as a psychiatrist. She sat in her booth and the sign above her head said “Advice — 5¢,” Charlie Brown was often her client. 

One time Charlie Brown woefully asked Lucy’s advice on finding a purpose in life. Using the metaphor of the bow of a large boat, Lucy responds, “Some people go through life with their deck chair facing backwards, looking at where they’ve been.” Then she asks,” Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?” Charlie Brown concludes sadly, “I really don’t know — I’ve never been able to get my deck chair unfolded!”

Today is the third week (of five) in our series on the practices that you can see in the life of a healthy, fruitful congregation. I am thankful that we already embrace those in many ways

We began with Radical Hospitality (welcoming others in Jesus’ name); last week it was Passionate worship that engages the head and the heart in community. Today we are going to unfold the deck chair of developing our faith. Perhaps, where our spiritual development is concerned, we have all spent time with an unfolded chair or two. It is easy to get into a rut in life and not want to change.  The truth is there is only one thing for certain in this world, only one thing that always stays the same though, and that is change. There is always change happening in life. And either we can manage change or it will manage us.

You cannot stop and freeze life, life keeps moving. The question is are we stuck or are we willing to grow, be transformed, to face the future that is ahead of us. One way we all move forward is by something Bishop Schnase calls Intentional Faith Development. This is how he describes this practice: 

Intentional Faith Development refers to all the ministries that help us grow in faith outside of weekly worship, such as bible studies, Sunday School classes, support groups, and prayer teams. 

Congregations who practice Intentional Faith Development offer opportunities for people to learn in community for people at all stages of faith. They offer ministries that help people grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action, and high priority.”

Intentional Faith Development. What exactly does that mean?

Well first we have to define “Faith”. Faith has to do with your relationship to God, and the trust-level you and I have to let God be in control. In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, Paul begged and pleaded with believers to watch their lifestyles – to make certain they were not being conformed to this world, meaning they were to live like Jesus lived, not like the people who crucified him; they should be transformed people. That word “conformed” shows up in Galatians as well, where Paul wrote that he was working as hard as he could with them, and on them, to see Christ formed in them.

Second we have to define Development”. This “conforming” to the image of Christ is growth, maturation in the faith, and of your faith. The Greek word is telos (telos), meaning “mature” or functioning in the manner for which you were created. A surgeon goes to school to become telos in surgery; their goal is to become proficient in his practice of healing.

Third we have to define Intentional”. “Intentional” may be the most disturbing of the three words in today’s emphasis. This word debunks the myth that growth occurs in the Christian journey by osmosis (where it seeps through your skin like poison-ivy); you just go to church, read your Bible a little, pay your tithe and stay away from bad habits, and, voilà, you’re a Christian; the Jesus gene takes over and you get your ticket punched to go to heaven. 

(Colossians 2:6-7) says So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. 7 Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. Generally speaking, there is a parallel between the spiritual and physical life. Jesus taught many truths by illustrating them with physical realities. We talked about when He said he was like a vine, we are the branches. We are sheep, he is the shepherd. This is also true with the idea that our faith (our relationship with God) and our development (Christ formed in us) will not happen unless it is intentionally done by every Christian. 

As consider the saints of the centuries we as United Methodists have a rich history of Intentional Faith Development. Long ago, John Wesley instituted the tradition of Methodist Class meetings. During these class meetings the participants prayed together, studied the Scriptures together, observed Holy Communion together and practiced loving and serving others in need together. 

They also supported each other in their daily life struggles and concerns. They held one another accountable and encouraged one another to grow in their walk with Christ Jesus. How deliberate are you with nurturing your faith and building up your relationship with God?  Relationships take work. To have a good relationship with your spouse takes dedication and hard work over the years. To have a relationship with a friend takes work, you have to connect with them on the phone, in person, or in other ways to tap into the benefits of friends. 

How can you work on your own faith if you don’t tap into the resources that God gives us to grow our faith? Intentional Faith Development adds a deeper spiritual aspect to our faith that simply attending worship cannot. It can make our relationship with God even more personal, intimate and communal. It takes the aspects we do here in Passionate Worship and it magnifies them on a personal scale. So, how can you and I be intentional about spiritual growth? When Paul addressed this issue, he spoke to the whole church, but he also lifted up the idea of Christ being formed in you. 

So it is a personal issue which is before the whole congregation. This is how we apply intentionality – it is personal AND corporate; it’s for the individual believer AND the community. This is why we covenant together, agreeing to support all the different functions, such as worship, Bible study, fellowship and prayer like Acts 2:42 says. There are five components to this covenant: We promise each other our prayers, presence, financial gifts, service and witness.

In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul is telling the Philippians that they have to continue to grow in their faith. He has not been perfected yet but he pursues it. This is Paul, the great missionary, the person who was knocked off his horse and blinded by Jesus himself.  He had to continue to pursue his relationship with Jesus. I love the phrase that is used in the Common English Bible, “I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” 

We should be reaching out for the things ahead of us. We should be striving to move forward in our knowledge and relationship with God.  As we do this, we get to the 2 Corinthians’ 5:17 verse. We are made new in Christ as we get to know him better. We are part of that new creation that is happening right now through the transformative power of our Savior. The old things go away and the new has arrive as we let God mess with our lives and break us free to what is really important in life, which is our relationship with God and with each other.

Bible study, prayer meeting, fellowship times, Wed night GROW and other small groups,  missions & service, giving and worship are not the goal of becoming a Christian. But these are the things, in which we participate in order to grow our faith so we become the kind of people God wants us to be as disciples. That is why it’s a Journey and not a destination. Intentionality in developing your faith requires a personal involvement! You can’t find an app for it on your smart phone or ipad. God wants “up close and personal” – Nobody else can do it for you, and if we wait for “osmosis” to kick-in,we will have a very long wait. Intentionality takes time and doesn’t avoid the steps that promote development of faith. It’s a long….. (Life-long)…process!

Twentieth century archaeologists uncovered some interesting things about the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of which is the seemingly random design of the southern stairs. It was by these stairs that weary travelers climbed several hundred feet from the valley to the actual Temple. What they found is the rise of the steps varies in some instances by several inches. The stretch or depth of the steps varies — in no discernible pattern — by several feet! 

Now, some might conclude that the design engineers were either under the influence of mind-altering chemicals or incompetent. But not the ancient rabbis. They saw the random, sometimes treacherous state of the southern stairs as a powerful metaphor for Intentional Faith Development. They argued that the engineers were not “stoned” but were persons of faith who knew that to ascend the hill of the Lord hurriedly and without thought would be spiritually dangerous. 

Rather, those who would approach God must do so with intention, caution, and measured steps — paying attention and learning all along the way. All Along the Way. That is a wonderful picture of how intentionality works. Each step is considered part of the whole. That is your life; that is your life being conformed to the image of Christ! To quote Bishop Schnase again, Through the personal practice of Intentional Faith Development, we do the soul work that connects us to others, immerses us in God’s Word, and positions us to grow in grace and mature in Christ. 

We place ourselves in the most advantageous circumstances to learn and grow in our following of Christ. We cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual growth. We learn in community.”  We need each other and we need to lift each other up. When we participate in a Sunday School Class, Wed night, small group, some other group, we grow together. When you surround yourself other people there is a natural accountability that takes place. There is a natural group that supports each other, prays for each other, and replicates what Jesus did with the twelve. 

He called a small band of people to gather around him, learn from him and then go out to spread his gospel. We need that kind of accountability in our lives. And as we mature in Christ we cultivate the fruit of the spirits; like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." 

The fruits of the spirit cannot be grown if we do not participate in a network of nurturing believing relationships with others. Worship is part of the “all along the way” changing or transforming process. 

All of this is part of the uneven, seemingly random set of steps to help us become persons of stronger faith. It is intentional; it may seem like the results are osmosis-like, but God’s way is always step-by-step sometimes even if it is one step forward and two steps back. The scariest place to be for a Christian is comfortable. When you are comfortable with your faith you stop learning, you stop growing and you hope the world will stop changing because your faith and your life are perfect at that moment.  

But if you remember the only thing that is constant is that everything changes. We have to continue to grow in our faith to stay in good relationship with our God. And we have to keep doing that for our entire lives. It never stops.

Growing in Christ my friends in the faith, requires more than weekly Radical Hospitality and Passionate Worship, it is through Intentional Faith Development that God's Spirit works in us, perfecting us in the practice of love as we grow in the knowledge and love of God. 

We in the Wesleyan Tradition call that Sanctification. A question Wesley asked his class meetings was Is it well with your soul? What is your answer to that question? Let us all continue in the journey as we grow together. Amen. 

Five Fruitful Practices: Passionate Worship

October 30, 2022

Someone has described Psalm 150  as the “grand finale” of the Psalms, like those final bursts of light and color at a Fourth of July fireworks display. Or a  “A Guide for Praising God.”

The Psalm begins with the words, “Praise ye the Lord.” The Hebrew term is a compound word consisting of two Hebrew words: halal, which means “praise,” and another Hebrew word, yah, which is an abbreviated form of Yahweh, the personal name God chose for himself. So, those two Hebrew words together form halalyah, from which we get our word? Hallelujah. That word halal is used more than 150 times in the Old Testament. The Psalms were how the Israelites and early Christians praised God. 

Today we are talking about the second of the five practices of a fruitful congregation. The first one we talked about last week was Radical Hospitality. Today I want us to talk about Passionate Worship. I think we would all agree that we feel that we are experiencing passionate worship right?  But what makes it passionate? 

Was it because of the music, or the sermon, or the prayers? Was it because of the praise and worship music? (Or the hymns?) Was it because we were engaged with both our heart and our heads? What is passionate worship?

 Bishop Robert Schnase in his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations says  passionate worship connects people to God and to one another. People gather consciously as the Body of Christ, with eagerness and expectancy, encounter Christ through singing, prayer, Scripture, preaching and Holy Communion and respond by allowing God’s spirit to shape their lives. 

Psalm 150 gives us the WHY Praise God. Verse 2 says , “Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him for the excellence of his greatness.” So Praise God for what God does (God’s mighty acts) and For who God is (excellence in greatness)

Schnase goes on to say that lives shaped by God’ spirit become the nucleus for congregations with extraordinary warmth, graciousness and belonging. People are searching for worship that is authentic, alive, creative, and comprehensible where they experience the life changing presence of God in the presence of others. Passionate Praise. 

Notice that nowhere in Schnase’s definition is the style of music mentioned. And Psalm 150 says in verses 3-5 says Praise with instruments and dance. Basically, praise God with the whole orchestra. But if there is one thing we are passionate about in worship it is our music. 

People in many a church have battled to the death over their style. Take the young man who complained to his father one Sunday after church about how dull the hymns were that Sunday. His father encouraged him to see what he could do about that problem. So the young man began to write. He wrote beautiful worship music that congregations began singing but what he wrote was unlike anything they had heard before. It was contemporary music. 

There was such a great controversy in the church that soon people began calling him a tool of the devil. Many of the people including pastors couldn't recognize that his music compositions were translations of the Psalms. 

How could "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun" be Psalm 72, not familiar with that one? Perhaps this will help. How could "O God Our Help in Ages Past" be Psalm 90? Or "Joy to the World" really be Psalm 98?. By now you have probably figured out that I am talking about Sir Isaac Watts whose music you have sung many times. He has been hailed as the man who, virtually single-handed, introduced, developed, and invented the hymn as we know it today.

 It may seem to us that hymns have been a fixture in the church since time immemorial but before Watts it was psalm singing not hymns that formed the main musical component of church services. A hymn in the most general definition is a song of praise to God. Guess what hymn actually means not its not the opposite of her…Guess…Praise. Watts hymns were often based on the psalms but he put them into a moving new language of personal worship that anyone could understand. He made the hymns loose and easy to sing, dumbed down the verses and it was hard for him to do it. Such looseness brought criticism.

 "Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts's flights of fancy," protested one detractor. Others dubbed the new songs "Watts's whims." But after church splits, pastor firings, and other arguments, Watts's paraphrases won out. And many of the 700 hymns he wrote are still beloved today. I mentioned earlier that Watts started writing because he thought the hymns were dull in church. 

Here is what he actually said. "To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion." Could the same be said about us even just sometimes? I don’t claim to know what kind of heart you bring to worship every week.

Part of my job is to do everything that I can to engage you in the prayer time, the music, the sermon. Ways to help us focus intentionally when sometimes we might just be on auto pilot. I think we all have come to worship on auto pilot at sometime. We don’t feel too passionate about being here. It may feel like this: A little boy had gone to church with his mother. They were standing in the foyer of the church when the little boy looked up. On the wall was a plaque commemorating those who had died in the military. The little boy said, "What's that, mommy?" His mother replied, "That's a commemorative plaque honoring those who died in the service." The little boy looked stunned and said, "Which one 8:30 or 11:00?"

Schnase writes that many times we unconsciously enter worship in the evaluative posture of someone preparing a movie critique. We rate the sermon, the time for children, the prayer, and the music according to some internal scale. How was the service? Well the sermon was too long, the piano, the praise team was too loud, the choir off key, the children too noisy and the room too cold. Our attention turns to the imperfections, mispronunciations, missed cues, discordant sounds, personal discomforts and the weaknesses of the leaders and the flaws of fellow worshippers. But instead if we have a mind-set of expectancy we would discover that God wants a relationship with us and seeks to say something through our time together. 

What is God saying to me through the scripture even if it is read imperfectly, through the sermon even if the illustrations are weak and through the unifying power of music even if the music drags the pace a little? Am I allowing God’s spirit to form me, change me, transform me through these experiences or am I evaluating the quality of entertainment?

Or do we just complain? "I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday's new hymn - if you can call it that – sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this – in God's house! - don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need." 

That was a letter written in 1863, and the song they were talking about was the contemporary song "Just as I Am". Most of the music written in the 1800’s and early 1900’s are what is called gospel songs not hymns. Gospel songs have a chorus hymns usually do not. Songs like Lilly of the Valley, I’ll Fly Away. Blessed Assurance. Probably the greatest of the songs written by blind Fanny Crosby who wrote 9,000 hymns after the age of 40. 

Even these songs faced controversy. "What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday's was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting."

This letter was written in 1890 about the hymn "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" Similar words have been said about I’ll Fly Away. One pastor described his intention for leading passionate worship by saying in each service he tries to engage the intellect and the heart of the worshippers. Through engaging the intellect, they learn something about the content of faith. They learn about God, Jesus, the stories of scripture, the practice of the faith. Through engaging the heart he reaches the interior of the worshippers. The intimacy of worship helps them know mercy, grow in hope, sense the Holy Spirit, experience grace, offer and receive forgiveness.

And then finally the pastor seeks to engage people with a practical challenge to do something in their family, community and world because of their faith in Christ. That is my intention as well. But the interesting part is that the music of the 2000’s is looking to the hymns and psalms for inspiration. 

Amazing Grace (My chains are gone). The Wondrous Cross. Come Thou Font of Every Blessing. Nothing but the blood. Let Everything that has breath praise the Lord. These are praise and worship songs that are as Isaac wrote 300 years earlier: written to be as if David had written them today. They are full of passion and heart. They scare many of us because they are not our future but our present. We begin to think that our style of worship will be lost in the transition. Every generation encounters the same thing it’s just that the world is changing faster than it ever has. There has been more change especially in technology and society in the last 50 years than in the hundreds of years before. And what one generation finds to be passionate in worship may or may not be passionate to the next. There is nothing wrong with that. 

To me worship can be like a strong robust  cup of coffee or it can be a frothy star buck’s cappuccino and still be relevant and meaningful. Different flavors that’s all. We all have our own flavor. Neither better just different. Often we think one or the other is now unnecessary. Why do we need that Contemporary worship what a waste of time and money. Or why do we need that traditional service its full of old people and its boring. Neither is true and both are essential to the life’s blood of the church in my estimation. I like both. I would not want to have one without the other. One is Classic (a traditional style incorporating classic hymns wrapped in a more formal worship that never goes out of style) and Modern (a unique blend of modern  praise music, compelling visuals in an informal setting). They attract different kinds of people.

In 1987 I was entering into MTSU and beginning to find the Christian faith. That would still a couple of years a way but instrumental in that journey was a man named Rich Mullins and the very early beginning of what would be contemporary Christian music especially his song Step by Step. 

Oh God, You are my God And I will ever praise you
And I will seek You in the morning And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You'll lead me And I will follow You all of my days

And for me Rich Mullins is a part of my story and many others. He was real and authentic. But his music was different. But maybe if there is anything that we can learn from the story of Watts and others is to not discount someone’s personal experience of God because of their style of worship whether it is traditional or classic, contemporary or modern, Taizé, or emerging. 

Everyone should be able to come to passionate worship that engages their head and their heart in the way they feel most comfortable. A hundred years ago a congregation had three generations present in worship and all spoke the same language, shared the same culture, grew up with the same stories and enjoyed the same style of music. Now congregations include four or more generations and each has its own preferred way of communicating, its own distinctive taste in music, its own language and culture. The times they are a-changing.

But while the medium changes the message stays the same. Because who is to praise God? Verse 6 All the Heavenly Host and Creation. Everything that has breath including you and me. 

All people want is a chance to worship God where they are. These are tough questions that the church has had to ask itself continually since the time of Isaac Watts. I simply pray that what we do in both worship services is always meaningful and relevant. And most of all passionate and pleasing to our God. 

Thomas Ken, a 17th century Christian, must have had Psalm 150 in mind when he wrote:
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!” Amen.

Five Fruitful Practices: Radical Hospitality

October 26, 2022

Genesis chapter 18 introduces us to the story of Abraham and the three guests. It is a story about Welcome. The eastern world still values hospitality as a primary virtue.  Welcoming others in love is what the Bible calls hospitality. The dictionary defines hospitality as: “The friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers,” or “receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.”

But as Christians, hospitality is more than being friendly to guests, it is an extension of our love and care for people.  It is radical. As Christians we are expected to demonstrate God’s love through hospitality.  Hebrews 13:2 says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Christian hospitality then is demonstrating God’s love  in our home and church by the way we welcome visitors, guests, newcomers, or strangers in our midst. Most biblical scholars see Hebrews 13:2 as a direct link back to Genesis 18:1-8.

In our story this morning we learn from Abraham how we should demonstrate radical hospitality to strangers or guests. One hot day, Abraham had some unexpected guests show up at his doorstep. Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the hottest part of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing nearby. The Bible tells us these men were not ordinary men, but were the Lord himself with two angels by his side disguised. Abraham opened his home and set his table for three complete strangers because that was the right thing to do. And they in turn blessed him. And I think that we can learn much from Abraham’s actions about how to show radical hospitality when guests come into our lives and in our church. I believe this story gives us several biblical approaches to Radical Hospitality.

First Take the Initiative: Go To the guests.  Make them feel welcome. What was Abraham’s response? How did Abraham offer hospitality?  Let’s look at the text, in verse 2 it says: “When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them.” He ran out to meet these men, he didn’t wait for them to come to him. Abraham could have sat in his tent and thought, “if they really need my help they’ll come over here,” or “perhaps if I sit here and wait they will move on to the next tent.  After all it’s still the middle of the day, they can get to where they are going by sundown.” 

That is not what Abraham did, he took the initiative, and went to them. In fact it says, he even hurried to greet them. Showing Radical Hospitality means we take the initiative, not wait for guests to make the first move. Hospitality involves far more than a hello and a handshake, but it certainly does start there. But what would it look like for us to take the initiative when it comes to the church and in all the other areas of our lives? 

What if someone pulled into our guests spots and was met by a parking greeter who came right to their car to welcome them and point them in the right direction.  If it was raining outside the parking greeter would take big golf umbrellas and help guests, elderly, and handicapped into the building. Then once the guests were inside the church there would be a second set of greeters to welcome them and then what I call Andrew Ministers direct them and take them to where they needed to go.  If you were visiting that church wouldn’t it send a message that they cared about you? What if we expanded the warm welcome we already have?

Even secular businesses like Wal-Mart have understood the concept of hospitality, which is why they have people greet you as you come in their store. In fact Sam Walton always had someone to greet people with a friendly smile coming into his stores. His pledge with every “associate” was, “From this day forward, every customer who comes within ten feet of me, regardless of what I am doing in this place, I am going to look them in the eye.  I am going to smile.  I am going to greet them with a ‘Good morning,’ or a ‘Good afternoon,’ or a ‘What can I do for you?’” 

Sadly Wal-Mart has lost that vision. But think about Publix?  Or Nordstroms? They are well known for their hospitality. Or Chik-Fil-A where “my pleasure” are familiar words.  If businesses can be focused on hospitality how much more should we practice it as Christians both in the church, and in our own homes?

Hospitality isn’t just for one or two greeters in the church, we are all called as Christians to demonstrate hospitality. The Apostle Peter wrote: "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling." 

Second Take the role of a servant and treat all persons with dignity and respect.

What did Abraham do next?  Look at verse 3: [Abraham] bowed low to the ground. He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.

Once Abraham reached them, he bowed low before them, and called himself their servant. In a Middle Eastern culture, Abraham was treating his guests with honor and respect. By placing himself in the role as servant, he humbled himself before these strangers.  The very thing that Jesus wanted his followers to become is a servant to all others.

Abraham treated them as important because he saw them through God’s eyes. Abraham encouraged them to stay awhile, get a drink of water on a hot blistering day, and to stick around, relax in the shade, and wait for a bite to eat before hitting the road again. 

I believe this is Radical Hospitality at its finest. Treating every person who comes through our doors and our lives, whether Christian, or not, whether wealthy or poor, no matter what their social status, or ethnic background, we treat them as someone truly special, someone to be honored. There is not one person you can lock eyes with that does not matter to God.  We treat them as though they are an angel in our midst, or as Jesus told in a parable we should treat each person as though they were Jesus himself.  

How would it look if we welcomed every person who comes through the door of our home, or the church as though they were Jesus himself? How do our actions and our words reflect our honor and respect for them? How do we attempt to serve them like Abraham did his guests?

In making our guests here at Nolensville First welcome, It extends our welcome to taking the servant’s attitude. To greet them, and to invite them in. To show them around and instructing them where the classrooms are for themselves or for their kids.

Then in Genesis 18, verse 4, “Let a little water be brought and then you may all wash your feet.  And rest under this tree.” Abraham refreshed them by washing their feet. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet John marked this as the full display of his love.  And he commanded the same of us. 

Abraham offered them rest.  One reason people enter a church building is because they believe it is a sanctuary from the outside world. That is why we call this a sanctuary. Life is hard, and when we and guests come through those doors, it could be for any number of reasons, but at the root of all of those reasons is that they are looking for a home. And rest from the battles of the world. Freedom from office politics. Freedom from angry neighbors. Rest from temptation. Whatever the problem we need to be a place that offers them security and shalom, peace.

Abraham also gave them the best seat Again, look at verse four. "Rest yourselves under the tree," Here it was in the heat of the day - high noon, and where exactly is the coolest place? Under the shade of the trees. He was there enjoying a breeze but when guests came he moved so that they could have the better seat We can show Hospitality in a radical way by doing something as easy as giving up our seats and welcome someone to our pew. 

Third. Give Your Best

Genesis 18, Verse 6 says “So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah.”  Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread." 7 Then “Abraham ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it."

After Abraham convinced these three men to stay by offering them a shady place to sit down, water to wash their dusty feet, and get them something to eat for their journey, Abraham went back to his tent and told Sarah to bake some bread.  Three seahs is approximately 15-20 quarts of flour. Four or five gallons of flour baked into bread for only three guests. I’m not a baker, about all I have ever done is throw the ingredients for making bread into one of those once hugely popular bread machines. Remember those?

But I’m thinking five gallons of flour is a lot of bread for three guests. That would actually equal out to 50 pounds of pita bread. If that wasn’t enough Abraham went and handpicked a calf out of his flock. The verse tells us this wasn’t just any calf, but a “choice, tender” calf. Abraham had veal prepared for these guests. Back then, calf was a rare treat, even more than it is for us today, in fact meat in general was not a part of their regular diet. Meat was saved for special occasions, such as religious feasts celebrating what God had done.  Not only did Abraham and Sarah feed these visitors, but they provided them with both an abundance of food, and the best food he had. The third principle we learn is that Abraham (and Sarah) gave their best.

This was radical. All he had to give them was a little bread and water. And yet Abraham gave the most and the best of what he had.  How different from our own American culture, where we often think, what’s the minimum I can do to get by?  We do that in the church all the time. Things we would never settle for in our outside lives we let happen here. That attitude “that’ll do” would never fly in our jobs or our school work.  Abraham was thinking exactly the opposite, what can I do to show them the extravagance of God’s love. How can I bless them? What are ways we can demonstrate love by giving our best to others?

Maybe giving up the best parking spot? You could park as far away from the main front door as possible. I believe Radical Hospitality begins when people first arrive at the church. Perhaps it begins even in the parking lot. A great way to show Radical Hospitality is not to park in a guest parking spot unless you are a guest. We give our guests the best.

One way that helps me remember to put guests and other first is to park in the farthest spot even when I don’t have to on Sunday mornings. I want to demonstrate the love of God even in the little things by allowing others to have the best parking spots, particularly guests and elderly or handicapped, and maybe you might do the same. A small to treat our guests as Abraham did.

Each Sunday morning we are communicating a message  to newcomers whether you intend to or not, the question is how can we individually and as a church send a message to every person who walks through the door that God loves them, and cares for them, and so do we. That they are welcome. That they are our honored guests. (something we do well)

And in verse 8 we see Abraham standing ready and waiting for an opportunity to serve them. He stood near them under a tree.  Abraham took the attitude of a servant. He saw it as his personal responsibility to see that all their needs were met. That is Radical Hospitality. Their needs before our needs. Each guest is a guest of honor. We don’t want to smother them, but we need to make certain that each guest is honored. How often have you ever heard people complain because they were welcomed too much. Not very often right? And how do we do all of this? Well, it can only happen if we go back to Genesis 18, verse 2.

Notice that Abraham SAW THEM AS THEY CAME. He looked up and saw the three men before anything else could happen. This is the key place to start. When a guest comes into our church, we need to ensure that they are welcomed, refreshed, rested, comfortable, and given what they need to face the week ahead, we need to stand ready to serve and we need to be looking for them to come in. 

The Benedictine order of monks understood hospitality this way saying in their own creed, "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”  Are you ready to meet Christ?  Are you ready to be radical?

And the rest of the story for another day is: When we welcome to stranger and give our best than we find that they become a blessing to us. I can’t tell you how many times I have met a stranger who has become a blessing. Each one of you was a stranger when I came And now the more I get to know each of you the blessing of you is being revealed to me.