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Sunday, December 24, 2017

“He Came Preaching Peace”

A sermon based upon Ephesians 2:13-22, NIV 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4rd Sunday of Advent, December 24th, Christmas Eve, 2017  

Christmas is almost here; and almost over too for those who can’t wait to get back to normal, to get back on your diet, or to move along into the coming new year. 

So, now that we are almost there, and we are near the climax of this year’s Christmas celebration, what will remain, what joys will last beyond the fun we’ve had; beyond the presents we give to others, or we have had given to us?  And what is the most important ‘gift’ we still need to keep, not just for Christmas, but for the days, weeks, and months still ahead. 

I can’t think of any greater ‘gift’ we need this Christmas, than the hope for ‘peace’.  As we all know, this has been a noisy year for national and world politics.   News reports say that planes carrying Nuclear Weapons have been moved to the front of our airstrips, for the first time since the Cold War.   This comes with the increasing threats coming from North Korea, not only as this rogue nation has tested and armed its own nuclear arsenal, but as our own government has expressed its determination to act and retaliate with ‘complete destruction’ if any ‘threat’ is carried out.  In a world constantly threatened by ‘wars and rumors of war’, with ‘division’, extremism, and radical, religious, but also human evil, is there any gift more valuable this year than‘peace’?

Our text today, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is not normally considered to be a Christmas text, but it does point us to the heart of what it means to have peace.  It tells us that Jesus himself, came into this world to preach ‘peace’ (2:17).   These words echo the words of the angels, who when announcing Christ’s birth greeted lowly Shepherds with greetings for peace:  “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace…good will toward men’ (KJV, Luk. 2:14).”  You know the words.  They are some of the greatest words of Christmas, and they are words for ‘peace’.

What Paul helps us to clarify, is that this hope for peace is not just about any peace.   During the day Jesus lived, there was a peace across the world known as the “Pax Romina” or the “Roman Peace”, but this was a peace that was man made, humanly manipulated,  forced and often a cold, cruel way to peace.   In contrast, the ‘peace’ that Jesus came to preach is a peace that is not immediately visible, coming from deep within.   It is a peace of the human heart that has peace with God, because God has first made peace with us.  This is what Paul means when he says, “You who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (13).   It is God, who in Jesus Christ ‘was reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:19), who ‘made peace’ by his blood (Rom. 5:1).  “Even while we were still sinners,”  Paul says,  “Christ died for us”(Rom. 5:8).

The peace that God offers to us, ‘through’ the death of his only Son, is the peace that comes from knowing that God has made the first move, the first offer, and the great sacrifice, to ensure that ‘peace’ can come into your life.   For you see, when Paul speaks about being ‘far off’, he is not talking about only being separated from other people, but he is first talking about being separated from God.   Paul is primarily talking to Gentiles, to those who have known little of God’s plan and God’s purpose for peace.  But now,  through Jesus Christ, and through his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead, this plan and purpose is now being sent into the world that is ‘far off’ from everything God has been about.  Paul says to these Gentiles, ‘Remember….you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world’ (12).  Now, that’s far away.  How far away is it?

I saw a Christian Film recently about Human Trafficking in the United States, entitled “Priceless”.  The story is about how a young Christian Mexican girl and her younger sisters, had been falsely told that if they got into a semi-trailor they would have a new start in America.  They were secretly hauled across the border and taken to a hotel, where they would be introduced to a new life, given shelter, food, in exchange for a terrible kind of human slavery, which targets young girls and gives them a life that can destroy them body and soul. 

But in this story, inspired by true events, the man who drove the semi, was unaware of his cargo, until he was nearly run off the road, and heard the screams in back.  He opened the door, and then later opened his heart, to help the young woman and her sister escape, and later became her husband and together they set on a mission to stop human trafficking.   What is most moving about this story, is how not only were the Traffickers exposed, but also the Truck Driver’s own depressed, and wayward heart, was brought home to the faith he needed to get through his own personal ‘separation’ and ‘distance’ from God.   He found ‘peace’ by giving hope, help, and ‘peace’ to another, and the great peace he found for his life was there, to be discovered, in overcoming his distance from God within his own heart.

There are, of course, many ways to describe the ‘distance’ that can grow within us, which separates the person we are with the person we are meant to be.   Who we are meant to be is a people who remain close with God with a persistent hope, but too often, through the struggles and situations of life, we can become ‘far away’ from where we are meant to be.  But no matter where, or how far away we are, Paul says,  God has made the move to bring us back; back home, back to our true heart, and back in right relations with others, by first putting us in right relations with God.  
Isn’t this reconciling move by God at the core of what Christmas is about?   Christmas not just about sitting by a nice warm fire with family and friends, but Christmas is also about getting the warmth into us, so that even ‘strangers’, ‘guests’ and maybe even enemies, can become friends again.   This is something I saw recently in Ken Burns great Documentary on the Vietnam War.  Burns not only used America GI’s to comment on the war, but he also interviewed the enemy, the VIETCONG.  They were now talking freely about the horrors of the war, helping us see it from both sides.  Some of them were commenting how much surprise they had when they saw American military men caring for, even risking their lives, for their fallen in battle.   American soldiers shared how they could never find full closer of the war, until they visited those places again, or  until they shook hands, shared stories, and cried tears, with those who had been their enemies.  There was no closure, until they sat down in ‘peace’ and became friends.

Whatever, however you try to understand what Christmas means you must also accompany it with what Easter means, what Good Friday means, and what all of Christianity means.  Christmas can never stand alone, on its own.   Christmas is a day that not only celebrates the birth of a child, or points us toward the death and resurrection of our Lord, but it also points us to the “peace” God aims to bring to human hearts all year long.  

What I love about this text from Paul, is that he says that Jesus not only came to preach peace to ‘those who far away’, but he also came to preach peace ‘to those who were near’.  God’s peace is never a one side, one person, all for once, event.   God’s peace is a peace that is offered to all the parties, or it is not offered at any at all.  God’s peace is offered to both those who need to draw closer to God; those who are far away, but it is also those offered to those who are already near, so close even that they may not even see their own need for making peace.   What this means is that there is no inward peace, without it also being a shared, outward peace; and there is no true outward peace, without it also being a peace that moves outwardly deep from within, desiring to create community, unity, hope and reconciliation between separated, differentiated, segregated, and marginalized people.  

The peace that Jesus came preaching, was preached to the outcast, the crippled, the brokenhearted, and the despised, who were also being invited to join in God’s family.  In spite of differences or divisions of who we are, where we are, or where we have been in the human family, Jesus aims, through his death, not only to bring people peace with God, but he aims to bring people into peaceful community with each other.   Until we all admit our need for the kind of commonly shared ‘peace’ which ‘seeks and saves those who are relationally and spiritually ‘lost’, then we won’t have a peace that remains for long.   Jesus, as a preacher of peace, came to not only put his spirit of peace within us, but he also came to inspire us to move toward others---especially toward those who are in a different, difficult, or distant place.

In short, the peace that Jesus preached is a ‘reconciling’ peace.  Can’t you see this is the greatest story ever told, the story of the reconciliation between the Prodigal Son and the Waiting Father?  The main emphasis of this story is not the Son who left or came home, but on the Father who waited and welcomed his wayward Son with peace.   This is what made the story conclude the way it did, with the Father throwing a party for his once ‘lost Son’, a son who was lost, but is now returned and is home at last.  It was the ‘peace’ that was already in the heart of the Father, causing him to gladly receive and accept the Son who rebelled and ran away.  This peace within the father gave us this story, and it is the peace of father, a peace that loves and waits on us, that not only enables us to return to God, so that we to may turn toward each other with peace.

Is there any greater Christmas story than a story that includes the reconciliation of people who were once far away, but are now brought back, not only to God, but also to each other?   Life certainly has a way of pulling us apart.  But the joy returns, and becomes even greater, when we find to do the work of peace and come back together again. Years ago, in one of our churches, we put on a play at Christmastime entitled ‘Two Tickets To Christmas’.   It was a story about a family, who had somehow drifted apart, but were again brought back together again at Christmas, through unexpected events.  I looked to find that “Christian musical” on the internet, but was unable.  Perhaps it is a sign of our times that when Christian presence is in decline, that Christian peace, among families, in communities, and also in civil discourse is harder to find.

So, what is it that can bring people together, when life, circumstances, and even cultures can so easily keep us apart?   Is there any message of Christmas that can bring people together?  These days, it seems that religion is more divisive than cohesive.  Even a well-known Christian theologian has said: “There will be no world peace until there is peace between religions (Hans Küng).  So, how can we find a religious, Christian, Christmas message that compels us toward each other, toward our common human needs and hopes, rather than repels us away from each other?  How can people who celebrate faith, and perhaps see reality very differently, sit down with those of other faiths, or who have no faith at all, or have a very secular faith, come together around themes that are inclusive, rather than exclusive of each other? 

Bringing people together, who differ within the depths of their heart, is almost impossible on regular terms.  This is exactly what  Paul understood, when he wrote in our text; For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law…creating a new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility’ (14-16).  What Paul means here is that peace is not something we can make happen, between us and others, but peace is something Jesus has already accomplished  ‘through the cross’…, that is through his own suffering, sacrifice and death, Paul said, that in that day, in a fundamental way, Jesus had ‘put to death their hostility’.  Jesus had accomplished a new way to peace.

A wonderful way of seeing how Christ’s presence in our hearts can break down ‘hostilities’ between people is to see how Jesus himself, in his life and ministry made a way for peace with those who differed from him.  This story occurs in three of the gospels, beginning with Mark, where the disciples notice someone, who is not one of them, using the ‘name’ and ‘reputation’ of Jesus to cast out demons.  The disciples reported to Jesus, ‘We tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t stop!’  Hearing their report, Jesus responded, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward (Mark 9:39-41).  

Jesus’ approach toward those who not only differ from him, but who also ‘use’ his name to do good, reveals an incredible inner strength and inner peace, as well.  When Jesus gave his guiding principle, ‘Whoever is not against us, is for us’, we see a Jesus, who, out of the peaceful heart, is able to prioritize what really matters,  Of course, people have differences and have differing approaches of doing good, practicing faith, or seeing God.  It is normal to have differing viewpoints, different experiences, because we live in different cultures.  But within these differences we have from each other, the most important concern is what is the intention of the heart.  Do we intend good for others, or do we intend harm?  Jesus saw this person who was not ‘with him’ as being ‘for him’ because he had the same intention of doing good within his heart.

Christmas, when it is rightly celebrated, takes us straight to the heart what God intends for humanity, and how God’s intentions should be received and reflected in us.  Christmas, the coming of Christ, is about God’s intentions ‘for us’.  ‘If God is for us, then who can be against us,” Paul wrote.’  Since God is indeed for us, no one can really be against us, at not in a way that separates us from God’s love.  Having peace, a peace that Christ gives, we can draw closer’ without fear, to those who are ‘far off’ from us, and we can make peace, becoming not just peace ‘havers’, but we can also become peacemakers, in this world that needs Christ, and needs true Christians, and people who know the true meaning of Christmas, as much as ever, so we can all find the way to peace.  

Since Christ himself has accomplished the way of ‘reconciliation’, what we must do, if we want to have and make peace, is to make his way, our way.  We too have to die to self.  We too have to ‘put to death’ the ‘hostility’.  We too, have to offer reconciliation by ‘setting aside’ the ‘law of the flesh’ of what’s right, whether it is righteous or not, and grasp the higher, deeper laws of the heart, or spirit, we call grace.  Only by offering ourselves, can we ‘make peace’ and invite God’s grace into the strife of this world. 

By making Jesus the ‘chief corner stone’ in our own lives, we experience the ‘peace’ that invites us to make peace with those who differ from us.  For, if we want peace, especially among religions, or peace among our differing opinions and politics, we must not force our belief or faith on another, but we must share our own experience with others.  And the experience that always makes for peace is the experience of God’s grace.  Christmas isn’t Christmas, can’t really be Christmas, until we uncover, discover, or recover, the experience of God’s grace.  Grace is where the whole story of God’s peace begins: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (2:8). 

This grace, God’s grace toward us, is the ‘gift’ we must continue to unwrap, if we want to come together in peace with each otherAs I conclude this message, let me ask you, as we make our final approach toward Christmas 2017, what new experience of God’s grace gives you a renewed sense of peace?  What ‘gift’ of grace has God given you to bring peace in the midst of a warring world? 

An interesting ‘grace’ gift this last year, was a newly discovered handwritten note from the brilliant scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, which sold for 1.3 million dollars.  Einstein was a secular Jew, who had only leftover traces of God in his life.  But even with ‘leftovers’ he expressed a jewel of ‘grace’ for some troubled soul, which can be understood by anyone.   The hand-written note, left on a piece of stationary in the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, reads in German: Stilles bescheidenes Leben gibt mehr Glück als erfolgreiches Streben, verbunden mit beständiger Unruhe.”  Translated it says: “a quiet and humble life brings more joy than a pursuit of success which comes with constant unrest.”  I don’t think Einstein had a lazy life in mind, but I do think he aimed of finding inner peace, not matter your situation or position in life. 

Here again, just one more gift of God’s grace in this noisy, striving, warring world, which you and can now stop and celebrate, as we celebrate the peace with God, which Jesus established.   For he was born to bring us all ‘peace’.    Merry Christmas! 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

A sermon based upon Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 1:23, 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd  Sunday of Advent, December 17th,   

In October 1843, the writer Charles Dickens was broke and distressed. Despite early successes, his last three books had failed.  Rejected by his publishers, he set out to write and self-publish a book he hoped would keep his family afloat. The story Dickens created is the well-beloved Christmas Story known as “A Christmas Carol.” 

This Christmas, a film called ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ celebrates Dickens masterpiece of prose and his struggle to write and publish it.   While we can still enjoy and appreciate this wonderful classic, we all know that Christmas wasn’t invented by him.  How we celebrate Christmas today has been greatly influenced by him, perhaps even mostly shaped by him, just as our Christmas celebrations have also been shaped by Clement Clarke Moore and his poem, ‘A Visit From St. Nick’, but Christmas, as we know it, wasn’t invented by either Dickens or Moore. 

So how was Christmas invented?  Historically, Christmas Day was first established during the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, around 300 AD.  At that time birthdays were not celebrated as much as “death days” of loved ones, but as the Church became free from persecution and part of mainstream society, it began to celebrate Christmas nine months after it celebrated the ‘Immaculate Conception’ of Jesus on March 25th.  This worked out quite well, because Christians was a fitting alternative to the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice which were filled with reveling and too much drinking for Christians.  Christmas Day, provided the occasion for more humane and reverent celebrations of hope, faith and if course, love.

Today, there is a tendency to return to a more primitive approach and to celebrate Christmas on more secular terms.  In the Broadcasting media we have even seen the attempt to skip term ‘Christmas’ altogether, by using the term “Happy Holidays”.  Even Christians can forget the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas, who once focused on the birth of Jesus Christ.  Christians can sing, celebrate, exchange gifts, but still omit celebrating the core focus of their faith amidst their Christmas party schedules.  “What does it really matter, whether I think about Jesus, religion, church or faith?” we might reason.  What difference does Christmas really make?  Is there really a ‘true meaning’ to Christmas?  I’ll make my on meaning, thank you very much!

So, the question for us today is this: Who needs Christmas?  Our text answers: “The people in darkness do.”  While on vacation I saw a news report about a teenager who started a non-profit business to remake clothes for the homeless.  He said: ‘These aren’t second rate people and they deserve much more than second rate clothes’.  He was bringing light into the darkness of this world.  He was bringing ‘light’, he was bringing ‘hope’, and he was bringing ‘Christmas’.   When you are in the darkness, you’ll always need a little light.

During the time when churches were being persecuted in the European Eastern Block, once dominated by atheistic communism,  one Pastor stood up to preach at Christmas and he used today’s text: ‘The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.  On those in deep darkness the light has shined.’  When he preached those words communism had taken over his community.  The church building had been blown up by war and the Christians were not allowed to rebuild.  They were worshipping in small ‘mobile units’ or ‘trailors’.  Their land had become a dark place where there was no public place to turn on the true ‘lights of Christmas’.  But the pastor knew that the faithful had been in a place like this before.   He also knew that somehow they would come into the light again.  “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light….On those…has the light shined’.

When you living in darkness, which Isaiah called ‘deep darkness’ you will need hope for the true light.  Go up to Linville Caverns and walk deep inside those cavern walls, were the light never shines, and experience what I experienced as a child for the first time.   I thought I had been in the dark before.   I had walked in the woods.  I had moved from the city lights to the country nights.  I had spent the night in the woods in a tent and had put out the campfire and turned off the flash light.   But when the tour guide at Linville Caverns turned off the light, the darkness was so strong, it made be light headed, dizzy, disoriented, and even afraid.   Then, he turned the light back on.   He pointed to the fish down in the cavern stream and said, these fish have never seen the light and their eyes do not respond to light.  They are completely blind.   This is what it means live in the darkness.   If you stay in the darkness too long, you will eventually go blind and you will never be able to see again.   That was the first time I encountered what pure darkness means.   It not only means you don’t see, it also means you can’t.   When you live in pure darkness you are unable to see, even when the light shines. This is why the church must continue to bear witness to the light.

Most of us, thank God, have yet to live in a world that is void of physical or moral light.  We are still capable, for the most part, in understanding some difference between what it means to be in a time of moral darkness, and what it means to live in the light.  Our faith has been through dark times, our country has been in dark times too, but it seems that we have always been able to come back into the light.   Not long ago, I watched a movie about the Civil War; one of the darkest times in our American history.  It told the incredible story of how the Southern Army in Virginia needed fresh recruits, so they enlisted young military students from VMI.   These young recruits were to provide backup, but instead, when they saw the battle was being lost, they bravely walked through the mud, out of their shoes, and marched straight into battle.   Many of them courageously lost their lives, and still today, they are remembered at ceremonial roll calls at VMI.  The movie was named, “The Field of Lost Shoes” after the shoes that were found of those brave, young boys, who never came back to wear them again.

Those were ‘dark times’ in our history, which we never want to repeat, so when I heard young people in a new cast, sitting around in a room, expressing their fears that the extremes in social discourse, or in American politics makes them fear another ‘Civil War’ in America, I see that increasing fear that great darkness might return.   There is so much darkness still growing around us, that it can cause any of us to turn to thoughts of ‘doom and gloom’.   Whether it be the fears of an atomic war with North Korea, fears of increasing Islamic radicalism, fears of the European Union falling apart, or even fears of new cold war with Russia, or of new Chinese economic conquest, these fears bring renewed anxiety that the American, or even Christian future, may not be a bright as we once believed it to be.

Perhaps your own experience of ‘great darkness’ has nothing to do with the movements taking place on the world stage, but maybe the ‘darkness’ is closer to your own heart.  Maybe your own struggle with darkness is more personal, like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job,  the loss of physical ability, or moral failure, which has meant the loss of your own dream.  Grief, however it comes, can seem very dark, especially at Christmas time, when we are talking about the shining of a great light.  Sometimes, because a ‘great light’ or ‘great hope’ has comes, we are caught in the shadow of our own difficult situation, and we are wandering through the dark.  Is that where you are this Christmas?   Are you one of those ‘people’ who finds themselves living, as the people in Isaiah’s time, who ‘curse their kings and their gods’ (Is. 8:21) or who ‘see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and are thrown ‘into thick darkness…. (Isa. 8:22)?   It can be easy to feel this way.   At some time, this could be any of us.   We can all live through a time when the darkness is so ‘thick’ it weighs heavy on our souls or in our hearts.

But it is exactly upon this kind of people, --- ‘people who walked in darkness’ who see ‘a great light’ (Isa. 9: 2).   It was upon these very people who ‘lived a land of great darkness—“ that the ‘light shined’ (9:2).  It was upon these people who were bearing the ‘yoke’ of darkness as a ‘burden’ upon their own shoulders---those who had experienced the terrors of war, with ‘the boots of trampling warriors’ or the ‘garments rolled in blood’, who suddenly found their own ‘joy’ increased. But how?  How did this hope and renewed sense of ‘joy’ come?   How did this terrible darkness come to end?

People who have lost hope have a hard time overcoming darkness.   Once the darkness comes upon you, or gets within you, it’s very hard to get it out.  During the Vietnam Series of films on PBS, I watched and listened as one Marine told how after the Vietnam War, after all that terrible combat experience, when he came home, and ever since, even as a man, he had to sleep with a night light.   When he told his kids they didn’t need to sleep with their night lite on anymore, they complained: “Dad, why are you still sleep with a nightlight on.”  He had to try to explain to his kids why he, as their father, still had to have his nightlight on.   It was that hard to get the darkness out.  

One thing for sure, great hope for a new world does not come by our own human doing.  It may indeed seem to be too late for some of us to have any new hope for a new world, a new life, or a new joy, especially when we too have been hardened, broken down, or defeated by the darkness around us.   It may feel as if it’s too late for us, but Isaiah says that even upon this kind of people---people who are still living in darkness, when their seems to be little hope for their own lives—it is upon them that hope came.  

Hope came upon them, just like hope comes upon people when a baby comes.  Have you ever been in a nursing home, and been with some of those folks for whom there is seems to be little hope left, and then someone brings in a baby into their room?   When the baby or the young child enters the room, even the hardest, most pain ridden soul lights up.   When the baby comes things change.  It’s like this for new parents, when the baby comes everything changes.   The reason you live changes.  The reason you work changes.  How you see the world changes.  The baby changes everything.

It was this kind of change toward hope---hope in a young child, that Isaiah spoke of when he said, “For unto us a child has been born, …a son has been given to us.”   When the baby comes, light and hope comes.  But what we also need to know is that this child Isaiah saw, was no ordinary child.    Isaiah says that this child is different because  ‘authority rests upon his shoulders….”   He is not just a child who will remain a child, but this is a child who will rule the nations in a way that he can be astoundingly named  “Wonderful Counselor,  Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace….”   These are not ordinary words about just any kind of ordinary child, nor just about any kind of worldly Prince, Counselor or King.   These are words about a child who grows in ‘grows in authority’ so that there will be no doubt about who he is.  When this child comes to rule, Isaiah says,  ‘there shall be endless peace for David’s throne’.   This child will grow to establish and uphold God’s rule with ‘justice and righteousness’ ‘forevermore’.   His rule establishes hope, peace, ‘justice and righteousness’ in a way that you don’t just have a new day, but in a way that there is a ‘whole new world’.   And this new world comes just as humbly and hopeful as it does for a family who experiences the birth of new life in their own little child.  Isn’t it amazing how such a simple, humble, even humiliating birth, could change the course of everything else that happens?  We all know what the birth of a Stalin or Hitler negatively meant for the world.  Imagine what it could mean when a good ruler was born.   This is the kind of positive, but humble and relentless hope that keeps coming to the world every time a child is born.  

This is a beautiful image of hope---hope not just for a family, not just for Israel, but this is a hope for the coming transformation of the whole world.   But you may ask how has, how does, or how can the birth of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah still be the hope of the whole world---a world that grows more complicated than ever before, where promises of hope, future, or transformation are quickly extinguished by the negativities of our own ‘gloom and doom’?   Has the birth of Jesus really changed anything?   Has it really even changed us—our world, or at least how we see the world?  What is it about the life, teachings, or deeds of Jesus that has caused the world to see or do anything differently?   Are we a people who have been left in the dark too long, or are we truly a people ‘who have seen a great light’?   Has the baby really changed anything in us, or in our world, which brings us the light of hope and the promise of peace for our own tomorrow?    Did Jesus ‘invent’ or ‘bring’ anything of substance into our world that brings a difference to the darkness that still comes in life and in death?

This child Isaiah saw is not only called a Wonderful Counselor, or Prince of Peace, he is also unexpectedly called “Everlasting Father” or “Almighty God”.  The point here is not to point to who this child was, but to point to who this child is, and what he did, and still does, to bring to us a hope that is no ordinary hope, that shines no ordinary light. This means that you can’t expect to measure hope or see light in the birth of this child in the same way you measure hope in the birth of our own children.

Isaiah expressed exactly this when he said that this ‘child’ would ‘establish’ David’s kingdom with ‘justice and righteousness’ from ‘this time onward and forevermore’ (v.7).  Here, we come to some of the strongest promises in all of Scripture; “The Zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”   What this means is that the light of ‘justice and righteousness’ which comes through this child, will not be established in any way that had ever been known before, or will ever be known again.   This light will also never fail, like other lights shining through other human kingdoms.   The light of hope in of this child’s rule and in this child’s kingdom is different, because he is a very different kind of child, and a very different kind of king.  

This child is different, not because he actually ‘rules’ in this world, but he is different because he actually has never has yet ruled in this world.   Whatever we can say or don’t say about Christ and his kingdom, or whatever we might say about who really invented Christmas, or who or what Christmas really means,  the ‘light’ in Christ’s ‘kingdom’ is a light that was rejected by the world.  But as John’s gospel says John to our amazement, is that the world that rejects Jesus is unable to extinguish or overcome Christ’s light.  The world can’t overcome the light because, as Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world”, Jesus said this to Pilate, as Pilate prepared to crucify him. Jesus also said: “You will see me and the kingdom coming in glory…..”  Thus, Jesus light shines into the world, but is not from this world.  Like the sun, it shine and can’t be denied, though we are still free to try to hide from its light.  This light shines on earth but it is a light that remains in the heavens… is still in the future… and is is coming only in God’s way and on God’s time.  The light of God’s kingdom comes near, but still hasn’t fully come as we still are free to refuse its light.   God’s light shines brightly in the world, to reveal how things should be, could be, may be, but it remains beyond this world, so it can’t ever be fully extinguished.

God’s light in Jesus Christ can’t be extinguished because this is a light shining straight  from God’s heart into the human heart to reveal the truth of what it means to live as humans on the earth.  God’s light in Christ is an eternal, spiritual, light shining as a kingdom where God’s comes demanding to rightfully rule on the throne within our hearts.  It is only in here, in human hearts, that the kingdom can be believed and be established, and it is only here, within our hearts, that light will fully shine, as we will allow it to shine.  “This little Light of Mine” is where the Kingdom must begin.   It is God’s light that shines directly into our hearts to become our own light.  This is how this child comes and commands his rule.  The great, mysterious light of Christmas, is that the very ‘Everlasting Father’ and ‘Almighty’ God comes to us, again and again, revealed as the the same, helpless, needy, dependent baby who comes into our family and captures our hearts as the truth who commands his humble, righteous and just rule.  Until this eternal child captures all our hearts, the Christ can’t fully come.   But he can rule in and through and in us. But one day,  our hope is, that when the government of this child has grown and gained full authority in us,  this kingdom will come without end.  He will rule forever, because we allow the light to shine in us, one heart at a time.  The great mystery is that this child continues to be born, his kingdom will continue to come, shining on human hearts, as long as there one willing heart until God comes to finally make take his throne and make his home, eternally, with us.  

This final rule, however, does not merely wait on us, it waits in us.  This is what we see in the conclusion of Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol.’  You remember the moment when Ebenezer Scrooge finally sees the light.  He had been visited by three ghosts of Christmas; Christmas past, present, and Christmas future.   But it’s the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that finally gets to him, or in him.  This Ghost points Scrooge’s to his own darkness, forcing him to face the reality he doesn’t want to face: his coming death and meaningless life.  It is then, as he sees his name on his own tombstone, right in front of him, that he can no longer deny the person he needs to be and the person others need him to be.  Listen again, to how Scrooge responds as he sees, in his dream his own body on his death bed: “Am I that man who lay upon the bed? No, Spirit! Oh no, no! Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Good Spirit, your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year…. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.  The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.  Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

The rest of the story, you know.   Scrooge saw a light in the darkness, and he turned toward that light.   What about you?   Can you still see His light shining bright, even in the darkness that surrounds us?   Can you sing, with the spiritual, the best Christmas son of all: “I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness, no more night.  Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.  Praise the Lord, I saw the light?”   Can you say with the prophet: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined?”  Will you allow ‘his authority’ to ‘grow’ and glow through you?  You can; you must!  “For” this “child has been born for us!   He is the one who is forever ‘Christmas’!  Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

“R U a World Christian?”

A sermon based upon Acts 15: 6-12
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
1st Sunday of Advent, Nov 26th, 2017,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

The Docu-Movie, “Facing Darkness,” tells how the story of how Samaritan’s Purse confronted the Ebola virus head-on, when two of its own staff, Dr. Kent Brantley and Nurse Nancy Writebol, contracted the disease.   Thanks to the concerted efforts of prayer, governments, and many health experts, they were saved and the Ebola virus was finally contained in Liberia.  What I remember most about the documentary, was one single statement, Dr. Kent Brantley made, after his recovery:  “Faith in God does not make you safe, but it may also put you in danger!”

Today, we want to speak again about God’s call to become a missionary church. When the rightly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, the saving message of God is not only for ourselves, our family, or our own country, but the Good News of Jesus Christ is a message for the whole world.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” the gospel says.  “Go and make disciples of all nations…” the Great Commission also says. This gospel is not a message for only a few, but it is a message for all.   So, until a church is also a church concerned for the whole world, it can’t be a true church anywhere in the world.  Isn't this why we teach our children to sing: “He’s got the whole world, in his hands!”   It’s not about us being safe, it’s about all being saved.

To help us understand how God calls us to be ‘world Christians’, I want to point to one of the most important moments in the early church.  Acts 15 tells us of a meeting of the ‘apostles and elders’ in Jerusalem, concerning ‘the conversion of the Gentiles’ (15:3).  It was a meeting called because some were opposed to their conversion, ‘unless’ those Gentiles were ‘circumcised’ as Moses had commanded.  As the apostles were going forward into the world with the gospel, following what Jesus had commanded, some wanted to stay with only what Moses had commanded. 

It was in the midst of this ‘debate’ that Peter spoke up, saying, that “God made a choice …, that I should be the one whom the Gentiles would hear the message….” (v. 7).  Peter spoke about what God was doing now, not from only what God had done in the past.  Peter’s new experience of God’s love for the whole world was rooted and guided by Scripture, but God’s love was not bound or restrained by Scripture.   There is a difference; a very big difference.  

Everything that God does in the world can be and should be rooted and guided by Scripture, but God is also a living God who is free, active, and responsive to human need.  The true God always has more than a word from the past.  Since God is the truth himself, He can’t be restricted nor restrained, even by his own word in the past.  When Peter says “God made a choice,” he means that God can do anything God wants.  God can even do a ‘new’ thing that has never been revealed or done before, either in Scripture or anywhere.   God can do this, because God is God.   While God doesn’t go against His Word, which is the ‘eternal’ truth found in Scripture, since God himself is the eternal truth, God can bring us new ways with new understandings that bring us new truth beyond the ‘ancient’ truths, so we can still find God’s love revealed to us today.

Before we can become ‘world’ Christians, that is, before we develop a concern for the whole world, we must trust in a God who still makes choices and who is bigger, greater and more than we now think or know.  As one popular writer has put it, before we can serve God, we must be ‘gripped by the greatness of God’.   If God can be contained within your own thoughts, hopes, wishes, understandings, or opinions, then God ceases to be God and he also ceases to be true God who can save you. Only the God who is bigger and greater than the world, can save the world.   So, if you want to be a world Christian, you must first have vision of God who more than you now know.  

It’s is God’s choice to ‘do’ and ‘be’ more, Peter means.   In Acts 10, we read how God came to Peter in a dream, revealing something never revealed before.  God told Peter, who had been commanded by Moses to only eat ‘kosher’ foods, that God now calls ‘all foods clean’.  If Peter had only stuck with Moses, Peter could not have followed the true God, who is on the move.   In a powerful, revealing, and redeeming moment, ‘God made a choice’, a free choice, to go beyond what had been ‘before’.  Now, God was revealing himself, not just in new foods, but also in new people; people whom Peter had never known until he trusted the God was big still big enough to be the God who does something new.

But of course, the problem most people have with ‘new’ understandings of God is how to know whether or not this ‘new’ vision is true.  Peter said ‘God made a choice’ by choosing him to be a witness to what God is doing, but how does Peter know?   How did Peter know that the voice speaking to him in the middle of the night was really God’s voice, and not mere indigestion?  

For those who believe that God created this world, it may not be a great stretch to understand how God might also ‘love the whole world’, but it can be much harder to put this ‘truth’ of love into practice, especially when we have lived in only one country among only one kind of people.   When I was living in Europe, I used to listen to Armed Forces Radio so that I could get American news.  On one program, I can’t recall exactly what the caller to the news program was talking about, but I do recall what he said.  He stated proudly that there was no greater country in the world than America.  He also said that no country has ever done what America had done.   He also said, in his own words, that America is the only perfect example of what the rest of the world should be, because nobody can do what America does.  As I heard him speaking, while I could appreciate his love and patriotism for his country, I couldn’t agree wholeheartedly.  America is indeed, a good and great country, but America is not perfect and shouldn’t be idolized.   We should be humbled by America’s goodness or greatness, but not falsely prideful.   While Germany, nor Europe, were perfect either, after living in Europe for over 6 years, I could see many ‘good’ things America was indeed missing.   A more sober assessment would have been something like I once heard: “America is great, because America is good; but when America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.”

I tell this story not to belittle the ‘greatness’ of America, but to remind us that a country, a people, and a religion too, can only be consider ‘great’ as long we measure ourselves by higher standards than ourselves.  Peter tells us that the criterion knowing God’s truth is God’s living presence made known through the Holy Spirit at work in people:   “God….testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us (8).    

I find it quite revealing that the most important message of the book of Acts was not about God, nor about Jesus, but the message of Acts is mostly about the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world.   More than a book about the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, this is a story about the ‘Acts’ of the Holy Spirit.   Jesus himself pointed to the coming of Spirit (John 16:13), telling his disciples to ‘wait’ on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4) who would enable the church to go, not just to Jerusalem and Judea, but into the whole world with the good news (Acts 2: 4ff).

There, are of course, many angles on what Peter was saying about God ‘giving the Holy Spirit’, but perhaps the most important is that the Spirit is how God continues to work through all kinds of people.  When Jesus said that the Spirit ‘declares things to come’ (Jn. 16:13), this was more about ‘who’ God will continue through, as much as ‘how’. God works through all kinds of people to accomplish his saving purpose in the world.
The common denominator is not, ‘who’, but ‘how’.  The Spirit is God works through people who live, act, and love like Jesus.   This God who came to give his Spirit to us,  also came to give His Spirit to ‘them’.  Until we can also see God at work in them, we will never know the fullness of God’s in us.  There is no ‘singular’ truth of God, because God is at work in us all, when we live and love like Jesus. 

Is your God big enough to love the whole world?   Is your God the God who can reveal himself to anyone through the Holy Spirit?  This is the kind of God that Peter is reporting to be at work in the world---a God who moves beyond Jews, beyond Jerusalem, beyond laws, and is a God already at work in the world beyond us all, keep revealing to all, how the Spirit of Jesus can still save the world.

Peter is especially reporting to those ‘stuck’ in their own religious politics, to inform them, and us, that God moves on to others, whether we want to recognize it or not.  God does not stay in one place, because love does not hold anything back.  Truth will not be squelched, but will be revealed.   And the greatest truth God has ever revealed is this: ‘by faith [God} has made no distinction between them and us’ (v9).  

We probably already know the song: ‘Red, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the people of the world?’  But do we really know why we sing, teach, and need to continue to understand this?   It is not just so that we can teach our children that God loves everybody.   No, if we forgot how much God loves them, we will also forget how much God loves us.  For the God who is truly God, and is only God, is the God who ‘so loved the world’ just as much as he loved Israel, just as much as he loved his Son Jesus, as much as he loved the disciples, loved the Church or loves Christians.  ‘Red, yellow, black or white’, means God loves us all, but if we cease to understand that God ‘makes no distinction’ and we dividing the world into ‘us’ against ‘them’ or ‘them’ against ‘us’, then we cease to know the true God.  When we cease to know this God, it’s not long until we cease to know God’s love of us too.  

Peter has learned more about God’s great love in Jesus by seeing God’s love at work in others beyond himself.   He has learned more than how God does not play favorites, or that God doesn’t prefer one person or people over another.  What Peter is seeing, is how God is already working in the hearts of other people who are not exactly like him.   Peter sees this, not by looking at human nature, not by looking at race, color, or by looking into a specific culture or creed, but only by looking at the ‘cleansing of their hearts by faith,’ which sees by their faith in Jesus, proven by the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, does people learn, not just how God loves the world, but he also learns ‘who’ God loves, which is far greater.

This love of God for the whole world has no condition;  none whatsoever.  It has no condition because God loves sinners, just as much as God loves us, or anyone else.    When Peter says that God ‘cleansed’ or ‘purified’ their ‘hearts by faith’ (15:9) he is not making a specific condition for God’s salvation, but he is referring to the ‘condition’ of salvation itself.   It is only through ‘faith’ that God’s salvation could ever come to a dying, struggling, sinful or selfish human beings.  Faith is necessary for salvation, because faith is only way our ‘cleansing  of...hearts‘can come.   Our hearts are cleansed by faith because of what God’s love has made possible, through Jesus Christ.

This is where Peter comes to his final point: ‘We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (11).   Did you catch that Peter does not say we ‘are already saved’ but that ‘we will be saved’ through ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus’, just like they will?   Peter is not trying to limit God’s salvation, but he is trying to broaden our understanding.  We need to be humbled, not proud about what God is doing, not just what God has done.   We need to be forward thinking, not backward thinking.   We need to look to what God will do in the world, not just what God has done in the world.   By expressing salvation with a ‘future tense,’ Peter is reminding us,  that God’s ‘salvation’ is not something already fully consummated.   Our salvation is never something we possess only for ourselves or by ourselves, but God’s salvation is something God is still doing through all who believe in the ‘grace of the Lord Jesus.’    If we ever limit God’s salvation only ourselves--only to this church, our denomination, our country, our culture, or even this world, we will also find ourselves limiting what wants to do with us, in us, and in our world

We should never limit God’s salvation, because God’s salvation is freely given to everyone who believes in ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus.’   Did you catch this?  God’s doesn’t just save us by grace, but God saves everyone who ‘believes in the grace of our Lord Jesus.’   Now, of course, we might possibly think of some ways God would limit his salvation; like saying that salvation only comes to those who believe in Jesus.   This kind of statement is certainly in the Bible, because there is no greater love, just like there is no other name, that has been revealed to us than this: “…God so loved, that he gave his only Son.’    Yes, as a Christian, I may still need to clarify that Jesus is the one who is ‘faithful and true’ in revealing God’s love, but I still don’t have to put down other people or other faiths, especially if they are loving like Jesus loved.  Didn’t Jesus himself say to his disciples: ‘Leave them alone, because those who are not against me are with me.’  Even when I need to say why I trust in Jesus and why other do too,  I can still love those whom God loves, like Jesus would do.   

But there is finally, something else here too.  When I start to focus on God’s love, on Jesus who died, on what faith means, or when I focus on who God gives His grace too, my whole focus changes, just like it did for Peter.   With Peter, I stop trying to ‘play God’ by deciding who is ‘in’ or who is ‘out’ and I start trying to love like God loves and to care like God cares.  This is the direction the Holy Spirit is going, as He reveals the Father’s love through Jesus Christ.   

This is also the direction we must go, if we want to become world Christians.  When we realize that God makes ‘no distinction’ in loving people, we too will become more and more amazed at how much bigger God is, than we ever imagined.    We will also see that God’s love becomes ever clearer, because we have come to understand how God loves them, just as much as God loves us.   Only this God, who has enough love to go around to everyone, is big enough to be the true God of anyone.   That is why Peter, me, and you too, should be ‘world’ Christians.   Amen.