A Call To Action

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Most people like Christmas. What’s not to like. Yes, there are people who because of memories, or relational pain or for any number of other reasons tend to dread the holidays. But most people generally have a warm feeling about Christmas. Maybe it’s the collection of everything from the music, the anticipation, or the idea of thinking about yourself less and others more, due to gift buying. People just seem more merry and bright. As a pastor, I do know that more people seem open to church, religious activities and events than they do at other times of the year, some even feeling like it’s not really Christmas if we don’t go to church. Yet all this “good cheer” seems to only last for a few weeks around Christmas and then disappears for another year. The question is why.

My answer is simple. We live in an era of short shelf life and even shorter attention spans. Very little, if anything, has staying power. So sustaining something, especially something that’s seasonal, is hard to do. The reality is that for us to be really changed, we need to more like Jesus. And we need to be more like Jesus year round.

And that means giving ourselves to others. That means taking action. Jesus said in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I would suggest Jesus is not only talking about money, it is how you give your life to others in any form. During this season, who is it that needs forgiveness, encouragement or gifts of time, money or help? As Christians we need to find a way to give it.

A generous person gives grace to those who don’t earn it, don’t deserve it and without measuring whether they will return the favor. How we give out, is how we receive. How we “measure” our giving is how it will be “measured back to you.” How can we give more?  To see God work beyond what you can see. To go out of your way to express your love for God and others by making some person’s Christmas more bright.

Instead of leaving God’s gift under the Christmas tree, let this be the year you share this gift with others. I encourage you to get involved in giving back this Christmas.

You can help others this Christmas in so many ways. First, recognize the blessings that God has given you and use them rather than wasting them. Use what you have to help others and show them that God loves them and came to earth to die for them.

Discussion Questions:
1. Pray and ask God to let this Christmas time be a reminder to you of the importance of grace and giving. Think of some ways to give to others through acts of kindness and love.
2. There are opportunities to share the good news of Jesus. Some people see them as interruptions. Why do we not like God’s invitations? What do they interrupt?
3. God’s purposes do not always line up with our plans.  They are greater than our plans. How do you feel about this? Would you respond different this Christmas knowing this?
4. If with God all things are possible, why do we not think “bigger” when it comes to giving of our time, talents and money during Christmas?

A Silent, Simple Night

Christmas is not complex.

It is not intended to send families into debt they will not recover from till the next Christmas rolls around. It is not about about who has the most toys. It is about love. It is about compassion. It is about grace. It is about redemption.

These gifts came to us in the most unexpected way and in the most unpretentious package – the birth of a Child whose crib was a manger, and whose witnesses were farm animals, and whose first visitors were shepherds. One child and one future sacrifice sent to redeem the whole of humanity from the past, present and future.

My prayer is that we don’t complicate this Christmas season. Don’t let it get cluttered. Don’t miss it’s joy. Don’t drown out the Christmas classics with the chaos around you. Don’t allow the venders and merchandisers to reduce you to borrowing money from Uncle Bob, who you don’t like all that much. Don’t allow materialism to take the place of God.

Instead, let us thank God for His unspeakable gift of Jesus Christ on that silent night so long ago.

Discussion Questions:

1. How can we stand in awe, and wonder together this year with the shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem?

2. How can we kneel with the wise men and lay our treasures, along with theirs, at Jesus’ feet?

3. How can we allow our hearts to be impacted by the ultimate sacrifice that awaited this Baby for the price of our salvation?

4. How can we allow the overwhelming wonder of this season that drew Christ to earth, along with unspeakable joy for the gift of life and eternity, move us this season?

 

Silent Night…Sounds Good

In the Christmas Classics teaching series, we are looking at some of the classic Christmas carols and how they can apply to our lives. In the first week of the series, I chose the song Silent Night and for good reason. It is one of my favorites. It just would not be Christmas without the singing of Silent Night. I think part of the reason I like that song so much is because it is my dream, and maybe yours, to truly have a Silent Night and to sleep in heavenly peace. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But that is not the world we live in. The song Silent Night on the radio is replaced with the wail of sirens some where off in the distance. I have face-to-face conversations and emails with and from members of the church about losing their job, or battling a serious disease or failing in a relationship. There are stories of people whose loved ones lost their lives and others that have lost their way. There are days when I leave the office that it would be pretty difficult to offer a spontaneous and heartfelt “Merry Christmas” to all in earshot.

My intent is to not depress you, but to make a simple point. Life keeps moving and so it did on the night that Jesus was born. Babies were being born. The shepherds were doing what they did every night, tending to their sheep. Lives were disrupted as groups of people were forced to return to their ancestral homes for a Roman imposed census. Wise men were traveling from the east.

In very much the same way, life goes on here. I wish that Angela never had cancer. I am sad that people are sick and for those struggling with anxiety and depression. I pray for those struggling with addictions of all kinds. My heart breaks for the countless children who suffer with not enough food to eat. I hurt for the teenage boys and girls who do not know what unconditional love is. But while life goes on, everything changed on that Silent Night.

It was God coming into the world. It is God breaking through all of the barriers. It is strength and power and might redefined in the form of a newborn baby. Christmas is peace, love, joy, and hope. It is not about “happily ever after.” It is about the presence of God in the midst of real life. Now that makes me want to yell “Merry Christmas “ at the top of my lungs.

At Northstar, life goes on as well. We’ve laughed and cried together, dreamed of helping the whole world find and follow Jesus. We mourned for those we lost and prayed for those who are hurting and sick. We’ve shared our scars, worried a little bit too much, and occasionally stumbling forward with a heavy dose of God’s help. There has been energy, excitement and good things happening. I can see Northstar, redeemed by Christ’s love, reaching out into the world. That is the difference between life going on before and after that Silent Night so long ago.

Maybe that is why this song is so special to me. It is a reminder that right here in the world is a promise that God is with us. Right here with the cancer is hope. Right here with the struggle and upheaval is peace. Right here in the gathering of Christ’s people is joy. Right here with people, hurting, sinning, and failing, is love.

And that is classic.

Discussion Questions:
1.Where would we be without that silent night when Jesus was born?
2. What is so significant about God revealing His plan to the shepherds? Why do you think God chose them?
3. Life goes on. Read Matthew 1:18–24. How did Joseph follow through with God’s plan? How might his life have been a little harder after following through?
4. How might God use you to fulfill His plan and purpose on this earth?
5. Pray for God’s blessing on our Christmas events and services being held in December. There are many who attend who do not know the Lord. Pray, also, for our hearts to be softened that the true meaning of Christmas would be fresh to us and that our celebrations would be worthy of Him.

Hope in the Midst of Worry

Christmas should be a time of hope. Think about this, Christmas is poised at the end of one year and the beginning of the next – at the crossroads of the past and the future. A previous year, with its blessings and its trials, is gone. A new year looms ahead, full of uncertainty. Yet, here is Christmas – the celebration of a birth that took place 2000 years ago – a perennial bright spot on our calendars – because God has give us hope. Christmas is a time of hope.

In Isaiah 9:6-7, we read the following prophecy: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

And one night in Bethlehem, this hope was finally fulfilled as this prophecy came true. In the first chapter of Luke, we read about God speaking as He sent an angel to appear before Mary and give her this important message: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Nine months later, one silent night in Bethlehem, this hope for mankind had a name. God fulfilled the desire of the people in a person, his Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is why we celebrate Christmas – we recognize his arrival into the world as a child born to us, a son given by God. Just like He personified hope to the first century Jews who were waiting for a Messiah, a Savior, He is hope to each one of us.

And the best part is, we don’t have to wait for His Kingdom. It is available to all of us to become a part. It offers a better life both now and for eternity. Not a better life in perhaps the way you have tried to script your life, as king of your own kingdom, but a better life in the way God wants you to live as a child in His kingdom. A life filled with hope, joy, love, and peace.

When we celebrate Christmas each year, we remind ourselves afresh of the hope we have in Christ—not a thin, wishful thinking that dissipates every time we try to grasp it, but a firm, substantial confidence that we can wrap our arms around. A hope that reminds us that God is not done with us, nor with the broken world around us.

Discussion Questions:
1. What memories do you have of unwrapping gifts or looking for hidden Christmas gifts? How does the hope of Christmas—the unexpected hope that comes when God steps into our lives—affect your heart this season?
2. What promises or hopes are you currently waiting for God to fulfill?
3. Do we have the right to be frustrated with unanswered promises? Should life be “better” with God?
4. If Christmas is a reminder that the proper response to the frustration of God’s timing and unanswered prayer is faithfulness, how is faithfulness exercised in your life?
5. Spend some time praying in response to God’s Christmas gift: hope.

Joy in the Midst of Stress

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11

In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the bitter old accountant Scrooge provides a memorable illustration. Tight-fisted and greedy, he lives in a universe so calculating and cold that no one escapes his suspicion. He is haunted by dreams of death, and dreads its approach. The dreams open his eyes and he sees a way out: “The time before him was his own, to make amends in!” No longer consumed with his own needs, he is free to love, and vows to dispel “the shadows of the things that would have been.” And as he runs from one old acquaintance to the next, he rediscovers the world around him with the contagious joy of a child.

The older we get, the more jaded we are by life, the joy of Christmas is often something that we reach for, but it’s not the same. I want to remind all of us that the magic, the joy of Christmas is not in the lights, decorated trees, or gifts under those trees. The joy of Christmas is found in Jesus. Instead of the stress and busyness that we tend to focus on, let’s remember that the season is about joy. Jesus didn’t come to live on earth so we could be stressed about celebrating his birth. Jesus came so that we could experience joy.

In Luke 2:8 we read, “In the same region there were shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.” Verse 10 says, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Finding joy in life can be hard, no matter where we are. We could be financially secure for life, yet have no joy. We could be surrounded by family and friends and still have no joy. We could be involved in the things we love to do, yet still feel a lack of joy. What do we do?

Jesus was addressing His disciples in Luke 6:22: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven…” Jesus also said in John 15: 9-11: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

How important is finding joy in our lives? It’s everything. Fortunately for us, joy was born in Bethlehem. This is why the heavens rang out with “good news of great joy.” He has come for us. We did not deserve it, we could not earn it, but God loved us so much that He sent His Son for us. The truth is we can’t manufacture the joy of Christmas within ourselves. We can’t stir it up like a batch of Christmas sugar cookies. We can only accept it as a gift: the gift Jesus offers us if we would only stop long enough to hear His voice and accept His invitation. And when we accept Him as Lord and Savior, we will find joy in something every single day – through people, through experiences, through adventure, but always through Christ.

I’ll close with Peter’s words in his letter to the early church; my prayer for everybody who attends Northstar or reads this devotional is that we hold these words close this Christmas; “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)

Discussion Questions:
1. What is the difference between joy and happiness? How can we increase God’s joy in our lives? Why is joy an essential quality for believers?
2. In your own words, define what joy is in your life?
3. Why did the angel describe the news about the Savior as “great joy?”
4. Do you typically find joy at Christmas?

Peace in the Midst of Frenzy

“And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:4-5.

“Peace on earth” is a phrase you see and hear everywhere during the Christmas season.

For many of us, we have to wonder where that peace is. It wasn’t here last Christmas. It didn’t appear at Thanksgiving. And whether it be trying to find peace in the chaos of our own lives or trying to wrap our heads around hope for peace on earth in a political or military sense, “peace on earth” seems elusive again this Christmas.

That is not all that surprising when you consider that we are struggling to struggle to find peace with ourselves. We regret past mistakes, struggle with our present weaknesses, and worry about the future. We try to “find ourselves” in different ways and search for our purpose in life through relationships, work, leisure and travel pursuits. We seek and long for peace in our relationships with others. And we struggle with the uncertainty of tomorrow and the turmoil going on in the world around us.

All that sounds familiar. Read Luke chapter 2 at home today and really think about what was happening in Mary and Joseph’s life at the time. The census was handed down. Joseph and his very pregnant wife had to made a long trip to Bethlehem. Traveling by donkey while pregnant does not make for a peaceful experience. They get there and there is no rooms for them. No peace there.

But look at Luke 2:6-7, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” It sounds better when children recite those lines in the Christmas play. But I think the reality was somewhat different. If you have been in a labor and delivery room when a child is born, it is not a peaceful, serene place. Especially for the woman giving birth. Now replace the ultra sterile, technology filled delivery room with the dirty, noisy environment of a stable and think about the peace there.

In Luke 2: 8-15 we have the story of the shepherds. Shepherds had a hard life. They were hard men with a hard job and peace was not part of their job description. Then an Angel appeared. They were freaked out. I think most of us would have been as well. But then, the angel’s message. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy…” Then a whole group of angels appear and praise God. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (vs. 14)

So what does all this mean? Peace to men. Peace to you. Unfortunately, earthly “peace” will always change. Earthly peace is always short-lived. Christmas meals bring some peace, but just hours later you are hungry again. Happy relationships bring peace, but can you guarantee that even for one fleeting year, your solid relationship will never face arguments or problems? Christmas presents bring a little peace, but the very same gadgets that cause a hearty, “thanks” are soon broken or forgotten. And how many people ever get everything on their Christmas lists? And even if they did, would they have lasting peace?

Jesus came to bring you peace. Romans 5:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Peace is found in the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God with us. Isaiah 9:6 reminds us: ”For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Jesus brings peace, regardless of the circumstances you face. You’re at peace because Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the One who brings peace on earth to men.

Discussion Questions:
1. What do you understand by the word “peace”?
2. Do you think Christmas is a time of peace? Why or why not? Should it be?
3. How would you rate your life? Contented? Rushed? Exciting? Stressful? Moving forward? Holding back? For many of us it’s all of the above at times. There are things we dream of doing one day, and there are things we wish we could forget. In the Bible, it says that Jesus came to make all things new. What would your life look like if you could start over with a clean slate?
4. What does peace with God mean? How do we have this kind of peace?

Christmas is a Time of Adoration

The re-do of the song Hallelujah with a Christmas theme by Cloverton is a moving summary of the Christmas message. Christmas is a simple story that is reflected in the lyrics of this song. A couple going to Bethlehem expecting a child, no room, born in a manger, angels, shepherds and wise men, a Savior that came to rescue us from our sin. The last lyrics are so powerful: “My sins would drive the nails in you, that rugged cross was my cross too.” Despite the immensity of the universe of stars, galaxies and planets, the birth of God with us is reason for praise and adoration. He is with us to save us from our sin.

I love Christmas music. I just can’t get enough of Christmas songs, with one notable exception: The twelve days of Christmas. Maids milking, lords a leaping and three French hens doesn’t put me in the Christmas spirit. I love the classic songs, the more traditional songs as well as some of the newer songs such as the one I included in this post.  These songs help remind me that Christmas is solely about God. Christmas is about God fulfilling His promises, saving His people, coming to us — as one of us — in Jesus. The truth can be so easily missed: Christmas is nothing but Jesus. And if Jesus is not in Christmas, then Christmas is nothing at all. We should be singing the lyrics from O Come All Ye Faithful; O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. Or the opening lyrics from the song of the same name: Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of Glory, Lord of love. 

Our teaching series during December is called “Christmas Classics.” In this series we will look at the classic songs of Christmas and their application to our lives.

Discussion Questions:

1. What is your favorite Christmas song? Why?

2. How can Christmas music help us refocus on the message of Christmas?

3. What if our church decided to “Skip Christmas?” What impact would that have on people or on you?

 

 

Christmas is a Time of Personalization

It isn’t necessary for me to speak at any length about the commercialization of Christmas. We have seen it. We have experienced it. For some time now, the true reason for Christmas has been steadily slipping away from the world’s focus. The word itself, Christmas, has become harder to find in greeting cards and business advertisements.

For 2,000 years, however, Jesus has not been forgotten. Nor has the story of His birth. But, why did He come? Why did the Son of God leave the splendor and beauty and glory and holiness and wonder and perfection of Heaven to come to the dirt and sin and trouble and sadness of earth?

If you asked the average person on the street why Jesus came to earth, you would get different answers. Some would say that it has something to do with peace and good-will on earth, to teach us to forget hostilities and to renew our hopes for mankind. Others would say that it has something to do with giving us an example on how to be better people. I’m sure there are any number of possible answers.

So why did the Son of God come to this world two thousand years ago? The answer is simple: Jesus came to earth for you and for me. Christmas should be very personal to each of us who are followers of God.

That is why we as Christians make such a big deal out of Christmas. It is Jesus’ birthday, true, but it is also the beginning of the big event of the Christian story. We are not just celebrating the fact that Christ came as a baby. We are celebrating that He came and brought redemption to our world. In other words, He came to redeem you and me and all who believe on His name.

Here is how Paul answered that question in I Timothy 1:15? “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Paul was contemplating the grace of God shown to him. He could not get over it. He goes on to say that God’s purpose in doing all of this was to show His grace which leads people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

We too should be amazed. We too should not be able to get over it. We too should be in awe of God’s grace and mercy that began for each of us on that first Christmas night.

I want to challenge you to take the step to read the Christmas story, pray with your family and focus on Christ coming into the world for and to you. As you read, keep in mind that you are not just reading recitations of the familiar events of the first Christmas night. The passages are intended to understand what “unto you is born a Savior” really means. Think about that for a few moments. You have a Savior: Jesus Christ.

Discussion questions:
1. What is your favorite part of the Christmas story and why? Do you ever feel like God came to earth to save you?
2. Do you feel like your family captures the heart and the integrity of the Christmas
season? If so, how have you done that successfully?
3. What would you suggest are a couple of practical ways to help refocus on the true meaning of Christmas?
4. Pray for  those in our communities that they will attend church on Christmas.

Christmas is a Time For Salvation

As much as I like to plan ahead, I still need someone to save me at Christmas. It always seems, while I have a plan, I either wait too long to order Christmas gifts on line and have them delivered in time for Christmas, or I simply forgot one person on my Christmas list. I really don’t like going to malls, especially in the last few days before Christmas because I probably won’t find what I am looking for and may have to wrestle somebody for one item that multiple people are trying to get. Yes, usually I need someone to save me from over scheduling and trying to be in too many places at the same time, from overspending and a myriad of other things during the Christmas season.

Fortunately for all of us, Christmas is really all about salvation.

God knew that the world’s people would one day need rescuing. Sin would enter the human race and cause a break in our relationship with the heavenly Father. As a result, all people would die and experience eternity apart from Him.

The Bible says that “before before the creation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20), a plan for our redemption was already in place. This plan has been revealed through the ages and testified to in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation: ”But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

Luke 2:11 (NASB) says, “for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Notice that this savior is “for you” for all of us. When people think of salvation, they often have a very narrow concept of it: they think that salvation is being saved from hell. But God had so much more in mind than just fire insurance when He sent Jesus to be our Savior.

And Christmas is so much more than the celebration of the birth of Baby Jesus. Christmas is experiencing a Savior through grace. Jesus came to save you from sin and all of the hurt and guilt. Jesus came to save you for the purpose of significant living. Jesus came to save you by His Grace. Christmas was, is and will always be until Christ comes again, a season of salvation to everyone who is willing by faith to ask Jesus to become their Lord and Savior.

If you’ve never heard this story before, it’s what Christmas is all about. But if it is familiar, you might be like many other people who no longer realize just how powerful this holiday really is. Whatever the case, as we walk together through each detail of Jesus’ birth story, observing the Father’s wisdom, I pray you’ll come to realize just how great and mighty our God is.

Discussion Questions:
1. To you personally, is Christmas about the birth of a baby or the birth of a Savior?
2. Is Christmas about garland or grace?
3. What do you need to be saved from this Christmas? (Worry, Fear, Debt, Addictions, Loneliness…)

Christmas is a Time For Celebration

Reflecting on Christmas reminded me of The Pursuit of Joy/Philippians teaching series. Why? Because Christmas has become a time to focus on joy and happiness. Philippians tells us how to unlock joy and find contentment in our lives.

Remember Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

The word rejoice appears over 200 times in the New Testament. What is rejoicing? It can be different things to different people but I believe there are some principles that we can apply in general. Rejoicing is acting like you have something to be happy about. If your sports team wins the championship, you might shout, dance or even sing. If someone gives you the ultimate gift on your wish list, you would be sky high and tell everyone how excited you are. Jesus gave us the gift. He paid for it with His life. At Christmas, we celebrate the event that set that gift into motion.

My prayer is that you view the Christmas season as a time to rejoice, to celebrate what God did for us on that first Christmas night. Begin to rejoice for that gift even in the midst of the stress and pressure of the holidays. Rejoice for that gift even if you are not able to do all you would like or if you are separated from those you love. Rejoice in the Lord for He will never leave nor forsake you. Let this rejoicing seep into your daily life. Rejoice in the Lord right in front of the world. It ‘s the one time of year they won’t think you are strange. Well at least they’ll think your are less strange.

As you do, you will tap into the Joy of the Lord. That joy will change your outlook on the season and it will spill over to those around you. Rejoice and let your rejoicing spread joy to those around you. You may be surprised at the results for you, your family and even the world you live in.

The more meaningful a season is, the more reason to do things that help us experience the fullness of that season. So, unsurprisingly, this season has grown into one of the busiest times of the year – with so many options for doing and giving than any one person could not possibly expect to do them all. So, between all the things we do in and through the church, and all the opportunities available through work, the community and with family, celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions:
1. What is the best part of Christmas? What is the worst part?
2. What impact do you think that all the “merchandizing, stress, commercialization, etc. has had on Christmas?
3. What’s the one thing you would like to change about Christmas?
4. How do you rejoice in the Lord on a daily basis?