Pastor Kirk

Reflections from a spiritual pilgrim in Toledo, Ohio

Gift of Jesus, 24 December 2017

The Gift of Jesus
Series—The Gifts of Christmas
Luke 2:1-11

Big Idea: The greatest gift in human history was Jesus Christ.

Skit Guys Video

Introduction

Christy, I bought you a gift. I hope you like fruitcake! Merry Christmas!

Who loves Christmas cookies? I’m sorry, I don’t have any to throw out this morning, but I sure love them better than fruitcake! I’ve rarely met a cookie I didn’t like. I love sugar cookies, shortbread, …yes, I love buckeyes…but to clarify, I love to EAT buckeyes! My favorite cookie is gingerbread. I LOVE gingerbread!

Have you ever eaten cookie dough?

Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies and then poured the final chips from the bag into your mouth?

Have you ever poured the extra flour from the bag into your mouth? Of course not! But the flour and baking powder are essential. Skipping that tiny teaspoon of baking powder can destroy a batch of cookies.

History is filled with tiny things making a huge impact on our world. As Christy said in the drama, “Big things can come from really little places.” Jesus Christ, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow—and today—came from a “little town” of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. The greatest gift came from the smallest place.

What are some of your favorite Christmas gifts? What are some of your least favorite Christmas gifts? That list might be more interesting!

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is the white elephant gift exchange. I’ve received some very interesting gifts at those parties! I think we can all agree there are some gifts we really don’t want!

During this Advent season of arrival, of waiting, we have looked at the gifts of expectancy, grace, reconciliation, and adoption. None of those can be wrapped or shoved into a gift bag, but those who choose to receive those gifts experience things far greater than an iPhone which will be obsolete in a few years or a sweater which will be eventually sent to Goodwill.

Today we conclude our series,
The Gifts of Christmas. It has been my experience that there is no greater gift than the gift of Jesus. But like all gifts, you must choose to receive it or not.

The Christmas Story

Most of us have heard the Christmas story read by a friend, family member, someone at church, or even Linus on A Charlie Brown Christmas. A doctor named Luke wrote a biography of Jesus and our text for today comes from the gospel—or good news—of Luke.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1-3)

The scene is the Roman empire about two thousand years ago. Transportation was difficult, yet required by the government.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:4-5)

Joe and Mary travel about eighty miles to this little town of Bethlehem. The timing of the census was terrible as Mary was eight or nine months pregnant, although it is possible they were in Bethlehem for some time before the birth, as stated in the next verse.

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. (Luke 2:6-7)

That nativity set you may have in your home might not be 100% accurate, though the same can be said for many things regarding our understanding of the Christmas story. I like the biblical account as it is ancient, tested, and trusted around the world. Most likely Bethlehem was filled with travelers and with no guest room available, they slept with the animals in the downstairs of a home. Tim Chaffey writes,

Archaeologists have excavated first century homes from the Judean hill country. They have discovered that the upper level served as a guest chamber while the lower level served as the living and dining rooms. Oftentimes, the more vulnerable animals would be brought in at night to protect them from the cold and theft. This sounds strange to many of us, since we wouldn't dream of bringing some of our cattle into the house at night, but even today in some countries of Europe (e.g., Germany and Austria), the farmhouse and the animal quarters are often different parts of the same building.

There was no inn, no innkeeper, no stable…they were probably staying with family in an overcrowded house.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. (Luke 2:8)

What a scene! There are scholars who believe these weren’t just any shepherds, but rather Levitical shepherds tending to animals which would be used for Passover sacrifices in the Jewish rituals. These were special lambs who had to be without defect, creatures given great care, even swaddled by their shepherd in order to be acceptable in the temple as a payment for the sins of the owner. What an image for Luke to highlight while telling the story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Lamb of God who would be in swaddling cloths. These shepherds were in for a big surprise!

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11)

There are so many ancient prophesies fulfilled in these eleven verses. I wish we had time to explore them, but suffice it to say this was no ordinary baby and no ordinary birth, though the event occurred among ordinary people in a small, ordinary town.

The prophet Micah wrote about 700 years before the birth of Jesus these words:


“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.” (Micah 5:2)

There is so much solid evidence for faith in Jesus, including dozens of Old Testament prophesies uniquely fulfilled in Christ hundreds of years later. This is one. You can’t choose where you’re born, but Jesus’ birthplace was prophesied. O little town of Bethlehem! Big things can come from really little places.

Boaz, Barley, and Jesus

Jesus came from a little town that means “house of bread” as Christy mentioned in the drama. There are more than 5000 biblical references to baking bread…from unleavened bread during the Exodus to Jesus breaking bread and saying to His friends, “This is my body.” Ezekiel Bread can be found in grocery stores nationwide, a unique recipe found in the Bible.

One of the most fascinating stories in the Bible involves two women, Ruth and Naomi, distance ancestors of Jesus.

Naomi’s husband dies, her sons had died, and she is alone with her two daughters in-law. She urges them to find new husbands. One does but Ruth stays with her mother in-law, Naomi. They travel to Bethlehem…1000 years before Jesus is born.

At the time, if you owned a field, you were not allowed to harvest the corners of it, instead making it available to the poor and hungry. One day Ruth “gleans” from the field of Boaz, gathering ingredients to make bread. Boaz sees her, likes her, gives her more food, and eventually Boaz marries her. Ruth goes to Bethlehem and finds not only the gift of bread but the gift of a bread winner. Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, a blessing to not only them but also grandma Naomi. She was overjoyed at the gift.

The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him.  Ruth 4:16
The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:16-17)

Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and Naomi was his great, great-grandmother! The little town of Bethlehem became known as the City of David, and centuries later that label will be used by angel’s announcement to the shepherds.

Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)

A Kinsman-Redeemer of all people was arriving in Bethlehem. Jesus came to rescue and redeem humanity in the same town where Boaz had redeemed His ancestor Ruth. If you’ve ever read through the Bible, you know there are some genealogies that can be extremely boring, but this one is quite fascinating:

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. 

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, (Matthew 1:5-6)

Two of Jesus’ ancestors met during the barley harvest and a part in the ongoing gift-giving which would lead to the birth of Jesus, the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

So What?

We can talk all day long about big things coming from really little places. We can read the Christmas story of the birth of the Messiah. We can sing songs, exchange gifts, and eat cookies, but what difference does Jesus make two thousand years later? Jesus is the greatest gift. The story doesn’t end with a baby in a manger. Sweet baby Jesus would grow up, teach with wisdom which amazed the most brilliant minds of His day, perform countless miracles, willingly surrender His own life on a cross for the sake of every man, woman and child who follows Him, rise from the dead, ascend to heaven, and promise to return.

Jesus is the greatest gift. He came as Emmanuel, God with us. He came to our world to be with us, to relate to us, to love us, to show us what it means to truly be human. And He’s coming back for all who receive the gift, who receive Him, who follow Him.

Jesus is the greatest thing in my life. He has given me life—bountiful life! I live every day knowing my sins are forgiven which gives me peace. I know He is returning someday to our broken world which gives me hope. He is present here and now by the Holy Spirit living inside of me which gives me great joy. I’ve experience meaning and purpose for life, surrendering to the Creator God who knows me and still loves me.

And all of this can be true for you, too. There’s nothing special about me. I just said, “Yes” to the gift. And you can, too. The most famous verse in the Bible says

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

That’s a promise of eternity with God after you die, but also the promise of His presence and power and peace in this life, here and now. It’s not about religion or even being good. It’s simply about welcoming Jesus into your heart, your life, your world and inviting Him to lead and guide Your life. It’s about a relationship with Almighty God, a journey in which you can actually know your Creator, be adopted into a faith family of love, receive a fresh start in life, conquer your fears, and truly experience joy. If Jesus is not the main ingredient in your life, you’re missing out on the greatest ingredient, the greatest gift. I urge you to receive the gift, the gift of Jesus. Let Him lead and guide you and who you through His Word, the Bible, real wisdom, life, and joy.

One of my favorite songs of the season is “Joy to the World.” One of the lines says, “Let every heart prepare Him room.” Is there room in your heart for Jesus? He’s the main ingredient in my life and He can do incredible things with yours if you let Him in, if you receive the greatest gift this Christmas, the gift of Jesus.

Credits: title, drama, and some ideas from The Skit Guys.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

Gift of Adoption, 17 December 2017

The Gift of Adoption
Series—The Gifts of Christmas
Ephesians 1:1-6

Big Idea: God sets a beautiful example of love and grace by adopting us as His children.

Skit Guys Video

Introduction

Adoption is a very important and often emotional topic. I remember hearing a wonderful story of a boy being teased for being adopted. He turned to his peers and said confidently, “Your parents had to take you. My parents chose me!” While his attitude may have been a bit over the top, one thing’s for sure: adoption changes lives.

In the video, the mother utters three powerful words as she’s about to pick up her baby. She says, “We decided that’s the way it was going to be” and then says with a smile, “But it wasn’t.”

Our world is full of brokenness and pain. Bad news assaults us every day, prompting fear, worry, and anxiety. It’s so easy to give up, embrace the discouragement, settle for the status quo, and say, “That’s the way it’s going to be.” And then God whispers, “But it’s not.” During this Advent season of arrival, of waiting, we have looked at the gifts of expectancy, grace, and reconciliation. Today we turn to one of the most remarkable gifts of all…adoption. It changes lives. Has it changed yours?


In eight days we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, His entrance into our world…and into the family of Joseph and Mary. There are few things in this world more exciting than the birth of a baby. I’ve often said the only part of hospitals I like is the maternity ward. Families can grow two ways: through birth and adoption.

The Bible is filled with metaphors describing spiritual truths with physical realities. Words like family, born again, and new birth appear numerous times. One of my favorite verses—which we examined recently—was written by Jesus’ close friend John to some of the first Christians, followers of Jesus. He writes…

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1)

I love this verse—pun intended. It’s not just love, but great love. It’s not just a stranger, but the Creator of the universe. It’s not just that He gives love, but He lavishes it. It’s not just anybody, it’s us! It’s not just servants or acquaintances or even friends, it’s children. And that is what we are…children of God…if we follow Jesus. If we embrace the “reason for the season.” If we surrender our will to God’s, believing that Daddy knows best.

I know many of you struggle at this word “Father” because your earthly dad was…less than stellar. Maybe you never knew him. Perhaps he abused you. That’s not our heavenly Father, though. He loves His kids. He loves you!

Our text for today was written by Paul, a remarkably passionate man who once persecuted Christians before encountering Jesus and becoming one of His followers. He writes,

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, 

To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:1-2)

This is a letter to the church in the city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey. His introduction is similar to his other writings. Then he begins to talk about their identity—who they are. I think we can safely say although this was not written to us, it was written for us and applies to all followers of Jesus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)

Paul offers praise to God. We praise God as we sing and pray, adoring Him for His greatness, power, majesty, faithfulness, and most of all love. It also says we’ve been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. I’m not even sure I understand what every spiritual blessing means exactly, but I know it’s all good! In Christ—that’s the key phrase—we have access to God, to blessings, to faith, hope, and love. We are entitled to the benefits of being children of the King, the LORD of the universe. What’s more, followers of Jesus are “in Christ,” God the Father sees in us the things He sees in Jesus.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

The Greek word for “adoption” is huiothesia. When Paul uses the word it serves to distinguish the believer’s relationship as a daughter or son of God from that of Jesus.

Look at the New Living Translation of this Greek text:

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. (Ephesians 1:4-6, NLT)

That’s incredible!

God loved us.
God chose us to be holy.
God chose to adopt us into his own family.
And that was all before he made the world!

There’s more: it says he wanted to adopt us…and it gave him great pleasure. So what’s our response? We praise God. We praise the Father for sending the Son, Jesus, whose birthday we celebrate in eight days.

Have you heard this before? If so, share it. Listen as if you have to share this with a friend tomorrow…and then do it! This is a great time of year to ask, “What does Christmas mean to you?” Then listen. Maybe they’ll return the favor and you can say, “It means Jesus came as the greatest gift in human history, living a perfect life, dying for us, rising from the dead, and now he’s preparing a place for us. Do you know Him? He loves you.”

Love. There’s that word again. Everything in the video points to love. Everything about this season points to love. Baking cookies, buying or making gifts, hosting meals, sending cards, giving to charity, even singing songs of praise are all expressions of love.

But what is love? Contemporary philosopher-theologian Tom Oord says, “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promise overall well-being.” I think that works. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said, “By love we mean at least these attitudes and actions: rejoicing in the presence of the beloved, gratitude, reverence and loyalty toward him [or her].”

Last week we read God is love. My professor, Scot McKnight, sees four elements in divine love:

God’s love is a rugged covenant commitment.

Beginning with Abraham, God relates to humans through covenant, a deep commitment, greater than a contract. Often people will say they fell in or out of love, but that’s just emotion. A commitment is a decision, a choice, a promise. God’s love is permanent. It is rugged and is able to withstand anything we may do or fail to do.

God’s commitment is to be present, or to be “with.”

I love this idea of presence. Jesus came as Emmanuel which means “God with us.” He doesn’t love us from afar, but enters our world, our pain, our suffering, our hopes. In the absence of Jesus—who left our planet but promised to return soon—He sent the Holy Spirit to live and dwell within each of His followers. God is committed to be with us, and He lives inside many of us through the Spirit. Someday He will dwell with His people in the new heavens and the new earth.

God’s commitment is to be an advocate, or to be “for.”

Have you ever had a friend that believed in you? Hopefully all of our friends like us, but I mean a special friend who supported you. About a decade ago my friend Ramsey came up to me and said, “I’ve got your back.” I’ve never forgotten those simple words. He was for me. Again, we see love expressed through a commitment. Throughout the Old Testament, God says to the Israelites, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

God’s commitment has direction: God’s love is “unto” kingdom realities.

God loves the whole world. Every human was created in the image of God with dignity, value, and worth. If only we would always see others that way! Jesus is King and kings have kingdoms and kingdoms have rules. God’s kingdom mission establishes churches, communities marked by righteousness, the cross, and love.

The Family

Which brings us to right here and right now. We are a family, a faith family. In God’s family, we are all adopted…into grace…into love.

When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he said…

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:14-15)

The word “abba” is Aramaic, a word used by children for their father, not unlike “daddy” or “papa.” It implies both intimacy and respect. What a joy to call the Almighty “Abba, Father.” When I talk with Him, I always want to maintain a reverence, but not a distance. Some are too formal with God…others too casual. Suffice it to say, it’s a huge honor and privilege to be able to talk with God at all, much less address Him as one of His children.

Heather and I watched the first episode of “The Crown” this past week. I’m not necessarily recommending it as we’ve just begun, but it’s the story of Queen Elizabeth. She is introduced in the television program shortly before she is married, and soon thereafter they fast-forward several years until she has two small children, Charles and Anne. These kids are shown riding their bikes and interacting with their parents, seemingly unaware that they are in the presence of royalty…that
they are royalty.

It’s easy for me to take my relationship with Abba Father for granted. I’m used to Him being my Dad, especially after the death of my earthly dad. I don’t deserve to be adopted as His son any more than Charles deserves to be Prince or Little Orphan Annie deserved to be adopted by Daddy Warbucks. What a privilege!

Paul continues…

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)

If you think Prince Charles is heir to a lot, think about what God’s children receive! We are co-heirs with Christ. But we are not yet able to enjoy all of the inheritance now. For many followers of Jesus throughout the centuries there has been suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom. Jesus was killed for speaking the truth, what makes us think following Him will lead to a safe, comfortable life? We’ve been blessed in this country with great freedoms, but as long as we live in a sinful, broken world there will be opposition from the author of hate and death, satan.

If you recall in the video, the mother reads the verse in the Advent calendar which says, “God has chosen me…” God has chosen us to be His children, to join His family, to participate in His mission to seek and save the lost, to serve the poor, widow, stranger and orphan, to make disciples of all nations who will follow Jesus, to love God and others. Family brings both privileges and responsibility. We have been given salvation, hope, peace, love, joy, and the Holy Spirit to love and serve our world.

Our Heavenly Father is greater than any earthly parent. He invites all humans to become His children, yet He gives us the choice of joining His family or rejecting Him. If you have not experienced a great human family, meditate on this simple verse:

Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. (Psalms 27:10)

That’s adoption language. That’s love. He will never turn us away.

So What?

Maybe this is the Christmas when you say yes to God’s invitation to be adopted into His family. It simply involves surrendering control of your life, believing Daddy knows best. It means saying, “God, I want You to lead my life, be my LORD. Thank You for sending Jesus to die for my sins and offer me forgiveness and life. I want to join Your team, Your mission, Your family.”

Maybe this is the Christmas when you follow God’s example and adopt someone into your family. Heather and I completed foster care classes last year and continue to seek God regarding possibly fostering or adopting in the future. Some of you have experienced the tremendous joy of adoption. Even if you’re not ready to foster or adopt, you can help someone who is by praying for them, babysitting, or any number of things. The need in Lucas County for foster homes right now is staggering, especially with the opioid epidemic. There are brochures at the information center kiosk if you’re interested.

Maybe this is the Christmas when you simply adopt a person or family to join you at the Christmas table, buy them a gift, send them a hand-written note of encouragement, or simply say, “I love and appreciate you.”

How will you celebrate the Gift of Adoption this year? May Abba Father lead and guide you and your loved ones today, during these next eight days, and for years to come.

Credits: title, drama, and some ideas from The Skit Guys.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

Gift of Reconciliation, 10 December 2017

The Gift of Reconciliation
Series—The Gifts of Christmas
1 John 4:7-12

Big Idea: Jesus came to reconcile us to the Father…and one another.

Skit Guys Video

Introduction

An old man who just wants to make things right with his kids. That’s sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? He seems like a nice enough guy. What kind of person would reject love? He’s done everything he can think of so this time...this season...he goes...himself. He gives himself....a new beginning.

We’re in the middle of a series called The Gifts of Christmas. Two weeks ago we talked about the give of expectancy. Advent is about arrival, anticipation, and waiting. Last week we examined the gift of grace, unmerited favor. None of us deserve forgiveness, love, peace, forgiveness, or hope, yet that’s where God’s amazing grace becomes so vital to not only experience but also share. Today we’re talking about the gift of reconciliation, a word that reflects reunion, understanding, and resolution. In a world full of brokenness, reconciliation is desperately needed.

It has surprised me over the years how many good parents are estranged from their children. Don’t good parents produce good kids? How could someone walk away from the love of a father—or mother? Why would a “Christian” family have any division or unresolved conflict? Why are there so many prodigals amongst our First Alliance family? And then I look at the gap in my own family photo. Why? What happened? Can I fix it? If so, how?

Let me state from the beginning relationships require at least two people, and reconciliation requires at least two, also. The holidays are a time when people gather—with family, co-workers, and friends—for parties, meals, and for Christmas. I have nothing but good memories of childhood Christmases, not only tearing open brightly-wrapped presents and stuffing myself with cookies but seeing relatives I dearly loved.

It’s very different for me now. Obviously the wonder of gifts under the tree is different as an adult and I think twice before eating too many cookies, but while I love the family and friends in my life, I’m also reminded at this time of year about those with whom I am not connected. Many of my favorite people will be spending Jesus’ birthday with Him rather than me, which his bittersweet.

What’s more bitter and not at all sweet are those broken relationships. There will be one very empty chair at our table on the 25
th for the second year in a row, and while our relationship with our daughter has taken some baby steps forward, it has a long way to go. How could someone reject the love of a father?

Tragically, it happens every day, and not just with human fathers. Our heavenly Father went to the most extreme of measures to show us His love. We can accept or reject it…it’s our choice. He made the first move. The ball’s in our court.
We’ve looked at our text for today—written by one of Jesus’ best friends, John—before, but it bears repeating. It begins

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

This sounds so familiar to anyone who has cracked open the Bible, but this is revolutionary among other religions. Love comes from God? Those who love are born of God? Those who love know God?

And what if we don’t love? What does that say about us? The command here—and elsewhere in the Bible—is to love…one another.

What is love? That’s the question! Hollywood will tell you one thing, Hallmark cards another. A man I knew searched the Bible to understand the true definition of love when he came upon this next verse.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)

God is love. He’s the definition of love! Love is a person. Love is also a verb. It is action.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)

Love is more than words. The verse describes the purpose of Christmas itself. God showed His love by sending Jesus into the world, Emmanuel, God with us, that we might live, the we might experience abundant, satisfying, purpose-filled life.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Jesus came to die for our sins on the cross, to be the perfect sacrifice, to reconnect us with our Creator in a relationship destroyed by our sins, our pride, our rebellion, our offenses against God. Elsewhere in the Bible it says

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:9-11)

We have received love.
We have received reconciliation.
We have received an invitation to know our Creator—not just know about, but know.

Why would a holy God want to reconcile with sinners like us? Why would a righteous deity want to make the first move in mending a relationship we destroyed? That’s the love of a Father…a good, good Father. He takes the initiative to fix things when life happens. He sets the perfect example for us in our human relationships…our messy human relationships. You know…words get said, feelings get hurt, blame gets assigned, misunderstandings occur. It’s so easy for once-beautiful families and friendships to be strained or even severed. That’s where love comes in.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:11-12)

Let’s take a moment and meditate on those verses. Wow! God so loved us. We are to love one another. If God is love, what does it look like to love one another? It means looking out for the best interest of the other person. We’re naturally selfish, thinking about our own needs, desires, and opinions. Loving another means putting ourselves in their shoes for a moment. It can be so easy when they like us and are like us. Loving someone different…that’s another story! But it’s possible when God’s love is made complete in us.

Prodigals

Sometimes the most difficult people to love are those closest to us because they are capable of not only great love but great pain. You might know the story of the prodigal—or extravagant—son. Jesus tells his audience…

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.  (Luke 15:11-12)

Then the prodigal son takes the extravagant gifts of inheritance from his generous father, takes off for a foreign land, and parties until he’s homeless and hungry. In fact, the text says

He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:16)

That might sound gross to us, but to a Jew, even being near pigs was horrifying, much less eating their food.

I love the beginning of the next verse.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20a)

The soundtrack for this moment is, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas!”

The son could be home for Christmas if only in his dreams. He showed up ready to beg for a job as a servant. After all, he already played his son card, walking off with half of the father’s wealth, a scandalous thing given an inheritance is received after someone dies. He is ashamed, humiliated…but desperate.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

In 1985, Benny Hester wrote a song called When God Ran, about this verse. He sings:

The only time I ever saw him run/ Was when He ran to me/ He took me in His arms/ Held my head to His chest/ Said "My son's come home again!"/ Lifted my face/ Wiped the tears from my eyes/ With forgiveness in His voice He said/ "Son, do you know I still love You?"/He caught me By surprise, When God ran

That’s reconciliation. That’s grace. That’s love!

The father in the drama leaves his home and goes out to meet his family, just as the prodigal son’s father went out to meet his son.

Seeking Reconciliation

When we seek reconciliation, there are no guarantees. It takes two to tango, but someone needs to make the first move. Perhaps that someone is you. Maybe this Christmas is the one where steps are taken toward the healing of broken relationships. That is certainly the prayer for my family.

One thing I love about our God is there is nothing too difficult for Him. Prayer is powerful. There is no hopeless relationship. Nothing is beyond repair. No relationship is beyond fixing. That includes our relationship with God and our relationship with others.

God saw that the space between us and Him had become too great. So He ran to us. He came down to us at Christmas. Love comes down at Christmas.

So What?

We love God because God first loved us.
We love others because God first loved us.

He has done everything possible to show you His love, to have a relationship with you. It’s your move. What will you do?

Perhaps you’ve done everything possible to show others your love, to have a relationship with them. It’s their move. There might not be anything else you can do other than remain faithful, pray, and wait.

I’m there. Many of you are there. The gift of reconciliation means God took the initiative and has reconciled us to Himself which then allows us to potentially be reconciled to others.

Will you receive the gift of reconciliation with the Father?
Will you extend the gift of reconciliation to someone this Christmas?

Credits: title, drama, and some ideas from The Skit Guys.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

Gift of Grace, 3 December 2017

The Gift of Grace
Series—The Gifts of Christmas
Ephesians 2:1-10

Big Idea: One of God’s greatest gifts is grace—unmerited favor.

Skit Guys Video

Introduction

Have you ever encountered anyone grumpy at Christmastime? It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be the most stressful time of year, the most depressing time of the year, the most lonely time of the year.

Have you ever been the grumpy one at Christmastime? Maybe you’ve been upset when people said, “Happy Holidays?” Perhaps you’ve blamed others for the loss of loved ones. Here’s the unpopular truth: hurt people hurt people. Our sinful human nature is prone to want to retaliate, to react when we are hurt or offended.

We have sung about grace. It is truly amazing. It is unmerited favor, an undeserved gift.

Last week we began our Gifts of Christmas series looking at the
gift of expectancy. Advent is about arrival, about coming. Like Black Friday has spread from a day to a season, Christmas has spread from a day to a season of shopping, parties, and vacations.

But Advent is different. In some ways it’s not about the present, but the past and future. We are in between the first arrival of the Messiah and the second arrival, the return of Jesus Christ. We read the Old Testament which looks forward to the birth of Jesus. Essentially we remember the future!

But we also await the arrival, second coming of the Messiah.

The gift of expectancy is precious. Part of the joy of a vacation is the planning, the anticipation. As much as I would love for you to invite Heather and me on an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii next week (we’d find a way to clear our schedules and go!), perhaps even better would be the same invitation for a date further in the future (February would be perfect!) which would allow us to eagerly await the experience.

Today we’re looking at the gift of grace. We recently did a series on the subject,
Grace is Greater. You can read the notes and listen to the podcasts at PastorKirk.com. Grace is a precious gift.

Grace is the name of a girl.
Grace is a prayer before a meal.
Grace is simple elegance or refinement of movement.

Grace is a gift, and true gifts are not earned, but rather unmerited blessings.

Non-profit giving statements often include this statement:

No goods or services were provided in exchange for this contribution.

If that’s really true, it might be considered an act of grace.

I want to turn your attention back to that video of Louis. How does that guy feed himself in that body cast?

Seriously, though, some might say he got what he deserved, a ride on the conveyer belt and painful injuries from his rude, obnoxious behavior. Then again, he got what he did not deserve—a Christmas gift from a person he offended.

I don’t know about you, but I am more troubled by Christians who behave badly than those who do not claim to follow Jesus. I expect people without faith, hope and love to be arrogant, selfish, and mean. But Christians? The word “Christian” means “little Christ.” Whenever I see a speeding car with a fish on the back, a megaphone-toting evangelist yelling at people, or pastors fawning over politicians I think of the old Bon Jovi song, “You Give God a Bad Name!” Okay, that’s not the exact title, but that’s what comes to mind.

Disclaimer: I give God a bad name sometimes. It’s not my intent, but my life does not always look like a “little Jesus.” I can be arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental—among other things—and it’s in those moments that I especially need God’s gift of grace. I know what I deserve from God: eternal punishment for my countless sins and offenses toward a holy, perfect Creator. Instead, God so loved me and you and every man, woman child of every age, race, nationality, orientation, language, and religion that He sent His only Son, Jesus, into our world as a gift of grace to offer forgiveness, salvation, hope, peace, love, and joy.

But a gift isn’t yours until you take it, until you receive it.

Did Louis receive the gift of grace? Did he truly experience the grace of being right with God and others, or was he bound up in a religious quest?

Maybe the controversy about saying “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” is not relevant, but what religious attitudes do you possess? Am I the only one guilty of judging non-Christians for not acting like Christians? Am I the only one guilty of trying to be right instead of trying to further a relationship? I find it easy to laugh at the video but the reality is in our post-Christian culture, Christians do not have a good reputation. I wish the first thing people thought of when they heard “Christian” is Jesus, love, generosity, kindness, hospitality, and grace.

Instead, we’re known more for what we’re against than what we’re for. This really frustrates me—and it’s hardly a new phenomenon—but what can we do? What can I do? I believe the only thing I can do is experience God’s grace and share it generously with others.

Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us. He passed the baton to His disciples, the first Christians, who have passed it to us. You might be the only “little Jesus” people encounter this Christmastime. I don’t know anyone who is searching for religion—rules and regulations—but our world is crying out for relationships, friendship, hope, love, grace.

Our text for today was written by Paul to the church in the city of Ephesus, a very cool city I was privileged to visit last year. It was a once-powerful, influential city in the Roman empire. He wrote to some of the first Christians…

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Even the most righteous, Christ-like person on the planet was once a sinner without hope. Paul—who wrote this—was previously known as Saul, one who persecuted Christians! What a transformation! That’s grace.
 
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

Last Sunday during baptism we symbolically placed people into a water grave to die to their sinful past in order to be resurrected as new creations. We have been saved by grace. Paul even says it again.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We receive grace. We can’t earn it. We can’t take credit for it. We can’t boast about being a Christian or having salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of heaven, or a relationship with our Creator. It’s a gift.

Likewise, religion’s quest to be good enough for God is futile, it’s doomed to fail. But grace, the gift of God, is amazing.

Nothing you can do can make God love you more than He does right now.
Nothing you can do can make God love you less than He does right now.

That’s grace!

So What?

If you’ve received grace, if you’ve experienced it, don’t hoard it. Don’t keep it to yourself. Share it…lavishly!

I know it can be difficult to put others first, to listen when you want to speak, to give when you’d rather take, to go after that good parking place when the wind is howling, to bake cookies for that neighbor who drives you crazy, to go out of your way to be kind to the office Grinch…but that’s grace.

And just a reminder: nobody deserves grace! So it doesn’t matter if the person is young or old, a Christian or a Muslim, gay or straight, a Wolverine or a Buckeye…if you’ve received grace it needs to be shared.

Religion is about being right.

Grace is about relationship, about love, about a gift, about Jesus…and that’s who we remember and await. As we live between his first and second arrivals, we celebrate what He has done and look forward to what He will do.

Let’s not be like Louis—proud, loud and arrogant. He ends up in a full body cast, restricted and bound up, a great picture of what religion does. Let’s re-present Jesus well as people giving the gift of grace. I pray when people hear we’re Christians, they think

“You’re the ones who were handing out blankets that night it got so cold downtown.”
“You’re the ones who served coffee to those with whom you ideologically disagree.”
“You’re the ones who took a team over to the country that had the earthquake.”
“You’re the ones who sat by my mother’s bedside when she passed away last year.”

Life is more than being right. God-intended life is about being right with our Creator as well as being right with others…because of the gift of grace, a gift we can both receive and share.

Credits: title and some ideas from The Skit Guys.
  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

Gift of Expectation, 26 November 2017

The Gift of Expectancy
Series—The Gifts of Christmas
John 3:16-21

Big Idea: The gift of Jesus is worth waiting for…and worth sharing.

Skit Guys Video

Introduction

Do you ever feel like that dad? Thanksgiving’s over and now it’s full throttle until Christmas? It’s quite a transition, dominated, of course, by Black Friday which apparently begins before Friday and continues past Friday. Tomorrow is Cyber Monday followed by Giving Tuesday and…

Do you have rules about Christmas music? When I met Heather, she wouldn’t listen to Christmas music until December 1. I thought that was a bit extreme, but so are those radio stations that begin November 1. For me, Christmas begins when I see Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. What rules do you have in your home about Christmas music and decorations? Often they are passed down from generation to generation. Do you hide a baby Jesus?

Advent. We commonly associate it with Christmas. Years ago our family had Advent calendars and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Advent calendar gaining popularity. The term “advent” comes from Latin and means “coming” or “arrival.” With any arrival, there is anticipation and expectancy which means waiting.

At this very moment, what are you waiting for? Complete this sentence:

“I can’t wait for _________________.”

Today we begin a five-week Advent series called
The Gifts of Christmas. Do you like gifts? Of course, we all love gifts! They are great to receive and even better to give.

Today we’re looking at the gift of expectancy. Sometimes expectancy doesn’t feel like a gift. In fact, it may feel like torture. As I child, I couldn’t wait for Christmas, to open those colorfully-wrapped boxes…and hopefully find more toys than clothes! But the more anticipation, the greater the reward when the waiting is over and the arrival is experienced.

It’s impossible for us to understand how great the expectancy of the Messiah, Jesus. People waited for hundreds of years for this baby. Announcements were made. Clues were given. Finding baby Jesus was different than looking for a hidden nativity set piece. Dr. Luke described the clues given about two thousand years ago.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

How do you think these shepherds reacted to their angelic encounter? After calming down from the shock, I’m quite sure they said, “That was strange, now let’s get back to shepherding.” No! They probably wanted to run and see this gift from the Heavenly Father which was good news “for all the people.”

Can you imagine good news for all the people today? That would be so great, and yet that’s why we’re here. That’s why we exist…to proclaim the gospel, the good news. Jesus is the greatest news in human history, and we stand at a special time between the first coming and the second coming of Jesus. We look back at Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but we also anticipate His return.

I’ll tell you how the shepherds reacted to the news that the Messiah was coming. A few verses later it says,

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. (Luke 2:16)

Jesus’ half-brother wrote,

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

The greatest gift of all is Jesus. Have you received the gift? Do you know Jesus? Many know about Him, but you can know Him personally.

Jesus is the greatest gift, sent from the Father
of the heavenly lights. God created the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars…and they reflect His beauty, genius, and creativity. He is a loving Father who loves to give good gifts to His children. Many tragically think of God as a mean creature with the personality of The Grinch. Instead, He is the most loving Dad. His generosity makes Santa Claus look downright stingy! Jesus said

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)

We’ve been given good gifts since the creation of our magnificent world. When we messed it up, God realized we needed help—serious help! Our sins—those things which offend God and His perfection—created a wall between us and God. But since God is all about relationships, He offered a gift to us to knock down the wall, to allow us to know our Creator, have our sins forgiven, experience real joy and purpose, and engage in real life. The most famous verse in the Bible says

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

But there’s more!

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:17-21)

The Father of Lights gives good gifts…great gifts…the most excellent gifts! He loves the world. He loves you and me. He demonstrated His love by sending Jesus to be the Savior of the world, saving us from sin and death, mediocre living, evil, and hopelessness. People waited for generations for Jesus’ first arrival even as we await for his second arrival…which could be any day! Even though Jesus is not physically present, make no mistake…he is here! He is transforming people through faith, hope and love. Do you know him?

Which Jesus?

There was a woman named Charlotte who ran a Christian pre- school. She bought a plush Jesus toy. He was happy and smiling and all squishy; the way a cuddly toy should be. Some of the parents objected. They thought it was “inappropriate.”

Charlotte didn’t hesitate. She knew the question she needed to ask. She asked “Which Jesus do you want your kids to know? The breakable Jesus on the high shelf who’s always looking down on them OR the Jesus who’s huggable and sits with them on the
comfy couch, the one they can talk to, the one that comforts them when they’re hurt, the one they tell all their secrets.

Which Jesus are we actually expecting at Advent. The one who plays games with us and brings us life or the one who sits on the shelf until it’s time to go back in the box?

Wise Men Still Seek Him

My prayer for you, regardless of where you find yourself today on your spiritual journey, is that you would look for Jesus. I don’t mean the plastic figure from the nativity set—though you might want to hide him until December 25—but the real Jesus, the one the shepherds pursued, the one who lived a perfect life, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and promised to return. He came to show us what it means to truly be human. He demonstrated true love, the kind of love that gives until there’s nothing left to give. He said,

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

Wise men—and women—still seek him. Ask. Seek. Knock. You are invited this advent to know your Creator. This is not about religion. It’s not even about the Bible. It’s about knowing a Person, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the greatest gift.

Will you seek him this season? Will you pursue him? We are awaiting his return, but he has been waiting for some of you to surrender your life to him, to embrace him as the greatest gift.

If you’ve already received the gift, know Jesus is not slow in keeping his promise to return. He hasn’t forgotten you. Rather, he has a mission for you, a mission to proclaim the gospel, the good news, the gift.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We often think of eternal life as referring to a length of time, but some scholars understand the original Greek to be qualitative, not quantitative. Following Jesus means we can have an amazing, fulfilling, satisfying life now. Don’t just sit around and impatiently wait for his return. Be ready, but use these precious moments to help people discover the missing piece in their Nativity set, the missing Person in their life.

So What?

How can you bring Jesus to Toledo? Maybe you can do it through Christmas caroling, delivering cookies, inviting a neighbor out for coffee, or even inviting a friend to join us next Sunday or any Sunday in December. For the next four weeks we’ll be talking about the gifts of Christmas. This is a season of expectation. If you’ve received the gift, it’s time to share it until He returns.

Credits: title and some ideas from The Skit Guys.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

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