Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keeping It Simple

This morning, after working out, I was talking with a friend in the locker room of 24 Hour Fitness.  He was telling me about how things were just in a funk for him and he didn't know where to turn.  He is not a follower of Jesus, so I tried to share a little about how I trust the Lord in those situations.  He is overwhelmed by what is happening in his home and how stressed his wife is during this time of the season.  He is also experiencing a lot of pressure from family members for financial help, laying the guilt on because of the Christmas season.  At the end of our brief conversation, I told him I would be praying for him, although he wasn't sure how to react to that.

As I reflected on this discussion, I began to wonder how many other people are having deep pain during the Advent season.  It seems that people have so many expectations about this time of the year, plus they are racing at a breakneck pace with no time to breathe or rest.  Unfortunately, the church often adds to the stress and anxiety of this time.  We have to have our big Christmas outreach of a musical or a Christmas Eve service or some other type of event.  This requires people to put in extra time at the church preparing for this large event.  Then we have to attend our Sunday School party or this church gathering.  So the church has simply added to this rather than allowed people to live more peacefully.

Our culture puts so much pressure on us during this time of the year.  Economically, we are strained because we HAVE to buy presents for everyone and even our government encourages us to stimulate the economy in this way.  We are strained with our time because we have to get cards written and mailed, packages shipped, goodies baked, parties attended, trips to make, shopping to do.  Socially, we are strained because we are supposed to have Normal Rockwell Christmas gatherings and remember to send cards to everyone who has sent us cards.    Emotionally, we are strained because we don't rest as much and we feel so much pressure to meet so many expectations.

Here is a fact about Christmas in America:  It is a pagan holiday.  Let's not try to fool ourselves any longer.  The church an try to keep Christ in Christmas, but our culture has moved a far distance from any significant thoughts about Jesus and salvation.  Many places have outlawed setting up nativity scenes and it is becoming a social faux pau to say "Merry Christmas".   Even those of us in the church will spend way more money on presents for family than we will tithe to our local church this month.  We will exhaust ourselves trying to adhere to pagan rituals than we ever exhaust ourselves in witnessing or serving in the church.  I'm not preaching about this, I'm just stating a fact.  I am ready to let the pagans have Christmas and celebrate the birth of Christ in August, when He was probably born.  This way, we can truly appreciate the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah without competing voices all around us.

So rather than waste energy ranting about the lack of Jesus in this holiday, I propose that we set an example to our culture.  Keep things simple.  Set a budget that is financial, time, social and emotional.  Set some boundaries and keep your celebration simple.  Don't buy into the lies which our culture shoves down out throats at this time.  No matter what we see and hear on commercials, just relax and enjoy spending time with our family.  Actually say "No" to some invitations and refuse to be drawn into the stress.  Take a step back and evaluate what you will invest this year in a holiday that, often times, falls far short of our expectations.  Maybe that is another reason why I enjoy taking my family to North Carolina for Christmas.  Once we get on that plane, we can relax and decide to see who we want to see.  We don't have lots of parties to attend and very little pressure, so Christmas becomes a relaxing time for me.  I guess that's why I enjoy the nativity account so much.  Here we have an example of a simple family welcoming their child into the world.  The chaos around them did not diminish the peace they had in following God's will.  Mary and Joseph serve as examples of servants who kept life in the right perspective.  Luke 2:19 says, "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."  She didn't stress or panic.  She treasured those moments and was caught up in the midst of that moment, not focusing on what may happen a week, month or year or decade later.

So my prayer for you is that you will have a simple, relaxed and blessed Advent.  May God give you the wisdom to say "No" more often and say "Yes" to slowing down.  May the Christ of Christmas guide you during the most pagan seasons of our calendar.  May the touch of the Savior bring peace in the midst of chaos and grace in the midst of pain.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent Generosity

Psalm 37:21 - The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously
Psalm 112:5 - Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice.
Proverbs 11:25  - A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.
Proverbs 22:9  -  The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.
II Corinthians 9:6  -  Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
I Timothy 6:18  -  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

In these and other verses, God reminds us to be generous with the resources He has given us.  As followers of Christ, we are simply stewards of what God has entrusted to our care.  He is the owner and master.  We are simply the caretakers of all that He owns.

With that thought in mind, I want to thank the members of Hillcrest Baptist Church for being generous in the past year.  Over and over again, you have stepped up to help those in need or given to special needs in the church.  This month, we collect the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, with the monies collected going to assist missionaries in over 120 countries.  We met several of those missionaries during our On Mission Celebration back in October.  This past Sunday, we started this offering with our luncheon and auction, which raised almost $900.  You were generous in your bidding, which assists our missionaries.  What really struck me was how generous you were with the gifts you gave for the auction.  There were gifts which were highly valuable, not just junk pulled off the shelf which you wanted to get out of your closet.  I also saw people being generous by giving away the presents you won in the auction, but knowing someone else would like to have it.  You were also generous in helping set up and clean up the fellowship hall so we could have this event.  Thank you for being generous as a church and as followers of Christ.  I am humbled and proud to be the pastor of such a giving group of servant.


During the Advent season, we are really told by the media to be selfish.  I read that of the people who braved Black Friday sales this year, over 70% were actually shopping for themselves, not someone else.  The commercials on TV encourage us to overextend ourselves by giving possessions, which we really can't afford to give.  We are told that this perfect gift will make someone's Christmas meaningful.  Our kids are told they need just the right toy or game for their Christmas to be fulfilling.  Of course, we all know that these things will leave us empty and the toys will break.  So when I speak of generosity, I am not speaking about shopping for Christmas presents.


Our generosity during this season should extend to giving of ourselves or giving that which is eternal.  Gift to help International missionaries share the Gospel will reap an eternal harvest.  Taking time to help someone who is in need will cost us time and energy, perhaps our two most valuable commodities during the month of December.  Making a gift with our own hands is another way of showing someone that we love them enough to invest time in them.  Spending time with our family instead of rushing around to a variety of parties and gatherings is a way to be generous to those we love the most.  Giving blood is a way to give the gift of life to someone we will never meet.  This Advent season, look for eternal ways to be generous, to touch others in Jesus' name.

II Corinthians 5:21 reminds us that "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.".  The most generous gift ever given was the gift of eternal life through Jesus' death and resurrection.  God made a decision to allow His only son to live among us.  Jesus was born as a vulnerable and helpless baby.  He was raised by faulty parents, just like us.  He ministered for three years and then was put to death.  But on the third day, He walked out of the tomb and now sits at the right hand of the Father.  John 1:12 reminds us that if we simply believe and receive Jesus, we will be given eternal life:  The best gift of all.  We are generous, not to earn Heaven, but in response to being given Heaven.  We don't deserve such a gift, but we have a generous God.  So remember to follow God's example this Advent Season.  Be people of generosity, not of stinginess.  Give, not to receive a blessing, but because you have already received so much.

Monday, December 2, 2013

An Ending for the Ages

I remember watching a football game between Boston College and Miami played on November 23, 1984.  I had settled down to watch this game, knowing that the vaunted Hurricanes would beat up on Boston College.  The game ended up being closer than anyone expected and with six second left BC trailed 45-41.  The quarterback, Doug Flutie took the snap and rolled to his right to get away from pressure and let the ball fly.  It came down above a few Miami defenders and landed in the arms of Gerald Phelan, Flutie's roommate.  The BC players went crazy and the Orange Bowl got quiet.  In my lifetime, this was one of the most remarkable endings I had ever seen in a college football game.  The juggernaut Miami Hurricanes had been beaten by the lowly Boston College Eagles.  It was an incredible ending which continues to be talked about and shown on TV.

Fast forward to Saturday evening, November 30th.  We sat down to watch the final quarter of the Alabama-Auburn football game.  Alabama was ranked #1 in the nation and undefeated.  They were trying to win their third national championship in a row, but had to beat their arch-rivals to play for the SEC championship and then the national championship.  With time winding down and the game tied, Alabama moved into Auburn territory.  A run to the sidelined seemed to end the game, sending the game into overtime.  The Alabama coaches wanted the officials to use replay to see if there was any time left on the clock.  Auburn fans were upset because they wanted the game to go into overtime.  The officials said there was one second on the clock, enough for Alabama to attempt a 57 yard field goal.  The kicker sent the ball towards the uprights as time expired.  The kick was accurate, just not long enough and fell short.  Waiting in the end zone was an Auburn player, Chris Davis.  He caught the ball and began to run towards his goal line, 109 yards away.  Unbelievably, he kept going and ended up scoring the winning touchdown, destroying Alabama's hopes of another National Championship.  It was an incredible ending.  As we watched the final play unfold, my son and and were caught up in the moment.  Though we had no rooting interest in either team, we were screaming and yelling because the ending was so incredible.  This ending will be talked about and shown on TV for generations to come.  In Alabama, this will be one of the most famous plays ever.  Chris Davis will always be remembered for his winning score.  Even now, I am amazed by the incredible way this game ended.

Two thousand years ago, a child was born in Bethlehem.  That child grew up and began to minister in public.  He healed the sick, the blame, the lame and the lepers.  He brought hope and grace to those who were outcasts.  He showed incredible love to those who had been hated and even those who hated Him.  He raised the dead.  Wherever He went, people wanted to touch Him and be with Him.  But the religious leaders had other ideas.  They wanted Him dead.  So they had Him arrested, put on trials and then put to death.  In a moment, His life was snuffed out and His followers were bewildered.  How had this gone so horribly wrong?  These followers had invested three years into this man.  They knew He was the Messiah and would free Israel from Roman hands.  Now He was dead and gone.  A terrible ending to something that started out so promising.  Death had been victorious and now they had no purpose, no mission, no energy.  They only had fear because they were now being hunted.  

BUT on the third day, the one who was beaten beyond recognition, who was crucified on the cross and who was placed in a a borrowed tomb would have an ending for the ages.  In that one moment when the forces of evil were celebrating a victory, they were given a resounding defeat.  Jesus, the Messiah, walked out of the grave, alive and free from the shackles of death.  The King of the Jews was alive with a a message of grace, forgiveness and salvation.  The most improbably comeback of all time.  This was the greatest ending of any human event.  Jesus is alive.

As we enter Advent season (Which is also college bowl season and the NFL season), please remember this ending.  Please remember that the child became a man and died for your sins.  Please remember that He conquered sin, death, Satan and Hell.  Don't let Satan make a comeback by focusing your mind of presents, shopping deals, parties, trees and lights.  The forces of darkness have been beaten but they haven't given up.  Celebrate the eternal life you have because of the power of Jesus' resurrection.  Jesus told us in John 11:25, "I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies."  Let this reminder guide you during this Advent season.