Sunday, December 20, 2015

Church Can Happen ... ANYWHERE

Final sermon in our Advent series at Main Street UMC ...

Shhh! Lean in close. I want to tell you a secret. I have uncovered a conspiracy: a subversive plot to take over the world.

I know, there are a lot of crazy conspiracy theories out there. Conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Theories that the Apollo moon landings were faked. Theories that the government is hiding alien spaceships, and Bigfoot is cryogenically frozen in a government laboratory, and the contrails of a jet are actually chemicals that the government is spraying on us to keep us under control. Theories that Paul is dead and Elvis is alive. Theories of a secret world order called the Illuminati that controls the global economy.

Lots of theories. Crazy theories. But I’m not crazy, and the conspiracy I’ve uncovered is not a theory. It’s for real. It’s a subversive plot to overturn the existing world order, and it’s happening right under our noses. And some of the conspirators are right here, in this room!

I have uncovered this conspiracy in the pages of Holy Scripture.

-          Luke chapter 1, beginning in verse 39:

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  

(Luke 1:39-45 New Revised Standard Version)


Now think about how subversive this is. What the world sees is two pregnant women. One’s a little older; the other’s a good bit younger. One’s farther along, the other’s just starting to show.

Anybody who happened by would just see two women enjoying each other’s company.

But little did they know that both of those women were pregnant because of miracles! One was old and barren, the other is a virgin.

And little did they know that one of these women was about to give birth to God’s last great prophet, John the Baptist. And inside the other one, God himself was taking on human flesh and preparing to enter the world disguised as one of his own creatures.
Little do they know, as people look at Mary and Elizabeth, what God is doing right under their noses!

But Mary knew:

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

(Luke 1:46-55)


We always think of Mary as sweet and gentle, meek and mild—but this is tough talk! The rich and powerful will be toppled? The poor and humble will be lifted up?

Just in case you didn’t get it, Mary is prophesying the end of the world as we know it. She’s predicting that her child is going to launch a revolution!

This song by Mary is called the Magnificat (Latin for “magnifies”) because it starts out with “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Famous missionary E. Stanley Jones called it, “The most revolutionary document in the world.” Martin Luther said that the Magnificat “comforts the lowly and terrifies the rich.” New Testament scholar William Barclay called it “a bombshell” filled with “revolutionary terror” that turns the world’s standards upside down.

In the Magnificat, Mary lets us know that Christmas is the subversive story of an upside-down kingdom.

*Christmas is a conspiracy to change the world as we know it!

And it started with two women – two ordinary pregnant women: one older, one younger -- one pretty far along, the other just starting to show.

Anybody who happened by would just see two women enjoying each other’s company. But little did they know what God was doing right under their noses!

Which raises the question: What other things is God doing right now, right under our noses, that we don’t even know about?

If you’ve watched the news this week, you know about the presidential debates; you know that congress passed a budget deal; you know about Obama’s press conference. You probably didn’t know that today in Africa 32,000 people will give their lives to Christ—or that this week 3,500 new churches will open around the world.

If you’ve kept up with the news this year, you probably heard that the Pew Research Center released a major study that found that Christianity in America is declining. Church attendance is down; the percentage of people who say they’re Christian is down.

What you may not know is that, according to the same study, the number of committed Christ followers is actually going UP. Yes there are fewer cultural Christians who go to church just because it’s the thing to do—but there are actually more committed Christians who take their faith seriously.

If you’re up on economic news, you probably know that China owns most of our foreign debt. What you probably don’t know is that every single day 10,000 Chinese people give their lives to Jesus Christ. And you probably didn’t know that there are more evangelical Christians in China than in the United States. This despite 66 years of repression by an atheistic communist government.

You see, God is at work, right under our noses, quietly working to undermine the current world order and overthrow the existing establishment.

And just like 2000 years ago, when Mary and Elizabeth got together, most people don’t even know what’s really going on.

It’s certainly that way with Christmas. People look at the baby in the manger and say, “Oh how cute. Oh how sweet.” What they don’t realize is that this little child is really God sneaking behind enemy lines and recruiting subversives!

The well-loved Christian author C.S. Lewis said it this way: “Enemy-occupied territory---that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Christmas is the subversive story of an upside-down kingdom.

Make no mistake:  The ultimate goal of Christmas is to overthrow the current establishment. “Baby Jesus” is really KING JESUS – and one day, he will return to set up His kingdom and run things his way.

Until then, he is quietly recruiting subversives--people who say, “My allegiance is not to the current establishment”—who go ahead and start living by the values of the upside-down kingdom. While the rest of the world goes after money, power, prestige, pleasure, these subversives go about quietly seeking the Kingdom of God, and recruiting other subversives to join them.

And here’s the thing: These subversives … these revolutionaries … the perpetrators of this conspiracy—they could be ANYWHERE!

Oh yes, you can find them in here worshiping on Sunday. But during the week, they’re out there, beyond the walls, following Jesus in mission to the world.

During the week you might find them serving meals at Bethany Cafe and feeding the homeless at New Story Church.

You might find them visiting the sick and caring for the lonely.

You might find them ministering in prisons and serving the poor.

You might find them sharing Christ through word and deed.

This group of conspirators – these subversive revolutionaries – are called “Church.” They don’t GO to church – they ARE the church. They are the church seven days a week – change agents on a mission to overthrow the current establishment.

AND HERE’S THE QUESTION:

Do you want to join the conspiracy? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Church Can Be ... Everyone"

3rd sermon in the "Church Can Happen Anywhere" Advent Series. I only did it in our Jubilee! contemporary service, because our annual Christmas Cantata was happening at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary. 

I am SO BLESSED to serve a church with a variety of worship styles. This year's cantata was AMAZING. The song "Gesu Bambino," with the choir and soloist and the violins and orchestra brought tears to my eyes. And Jubilee! was a heap of fun with foot-stompin' bluegrass and lively singing. 

As you read the sermon below, imagine me dressed in modern-day overalls and a biblical headdress, and carrying a traditional shepherd's crook.

Well, hey, y’all! My name’s Barnabas Benjamin Bartholomew Shepherd—but y’all can call me Bubba.

Now I’m a feller what takes care of sheep, and that means I ain’t real clean, ‘cause I live outside all the time. I reckon that’s why folks don’t take much to us shepherds nowadays. My brother Billy Bob says the people in town like to tell jokes about us shepherds—like:

       “If you refer to the fourth grade as your senior year, you might be a shepherd.”

       “If  puttin’ on shoes is your idea of formal attire, you might be a shepherd.”

And then there’s one I just don’t get:

       “What do you have if you get 32 shepherds in a single room? A full set of teeth.”  

Now I don’t understand them jokes, but I guess I understand why they don’t think much of us shepherds. We ain’t real fancy, and we aint real educated, and to tell ya’ the truth, we don’t smell too good. To most people, we shepherds ain’t nobody. And I used to agree with most people—until last night.

Last night we was sittin’ out there watchin’ the sheep, like we always do. It was just me and my older brother Billy Bob, and my little brother Ed Bob, and my brother Jim Bob, and my other brother Jim Bob—and we was just sittin’ there, looking up at the stars, and all of a sudden, there was this bright light that blinded us.  And we was sore afraid.  And I said, “Billy Bob—it’s one of them UFOs like you read about in the Jerusalem Enquirer!” And Billy Bob said, “Bubba, hush. You know you can’t read.” And I said, “Naw, I can’t, but I can look at pitchurs, and I know that’s a UFO, and what’s more, it’s full of little green men with great big googly eyes, and they’s gonna suck us up and do experiments on us!”

Well, no sooner’n I said that, that bright light calmed down a little, and then we could see it had a face.  And then we could see that it had a body, and it was wearing a fancy robe, and it had a big ol’ pair o’ wings. And then that UFO spoke to us, and it said, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people. For unto you this day is born in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. “

Now, like I said, I ain’t all that educated, but I knew who that shiny feller meant when he said, “Christ the Lord.” He was talkin’ about the Messiah! Our people been waitin’ for the Messiah for years. We been hopin’ he’d come along and kick some Roman rear end! That’s right! Them Romans been tellin’ us what to do long enough. We’re tired of it! We’ve been praying for God’s Messiah to come in and raise up a war band and drive out them Romans, and lead God’s people to GLORY!

And that’s why I couldn’t believe the next thing I heard. That shiny feller said we’d find God’s Messiah lyin’ in a manger. A manger! Do y’all know what a manger is?

That’s right. It’s a trough where cows eat. Now y’all think sheep are dirty—don’t even get me started on cows.  I couldn’t believe we was gonna find God’s Messiah—the holy one, the Chosen One, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings—Christ the Lord—layin’ in a heap o’ cow feed.

But before I could even scratch my head to think about it, a whole bunch o’ them shiny fellers showed up and started sangin’: “Glory to God in the Highest! Peace on earth, good will towards men!” And friends, I mean to tell ya’, it was the purtiest singin’ I ever heard...oh, no offense to y’all that sang a few minutes ago, but you see, them shiny fellers, they was angels from heaven!

Well, them angels went on back up, and I said, “Boys, let’s go in town yunder and see about this thing.” So we hurried off into town. And on the way, I started thinkin’: Why would God send the heavenly host to us shepherds? We ain’t nobody. Why not go to somebody with some clout? Why not one o’ them priests all duded up in his fancy robes? Or some rich guy in a nice house? Or even old King Herod in his palace? Why send angels to a bunch of smelly old sheep farmers campin’ out in a field? We ain’t nobody.

Well, we got to town, and we found the stable, and there they were. There was old Joe the carpenter, and there was his little wife Mary, and there was the King of Kings layin’ in the cow feed. We said, “What’s his name?” and they said, “Jesus,” and we knew that means God saves. And at that point, they wasn’t nothin’ else to say, so we all just knelt down.

And when we got up, Joe asked us who we were and why we come. And when we told ‘em about the angels, Joe and Mary just grinned from ear to ear like they knew exactly what we was talkin’ about.

See, they’d had angels call on them too! And they told us that this weren’t no ordinary baby. Let’s just say this baby didn’t come in the usual way. This baby, that we was lookin’ at, is not the son of a man, but the Son of God Almighty. Ooo-weee! If that don’t get you fired up, your wood is wet.

Well, we said our goodbyes and headed on back, and I started thinkin’ again. Old Joe and little Mary—they ain’t nobody either. Why, they’s poor workin’ folks, just like us shepherds. So I talked to my brother Billy Bob. I said, “Billy Bob, this don’t make no sense. Why did God send his son to Mary and Joseph. They ain’t nobody. And why did God send his angels to us shepherds? We ain’t nobody, either.”

And Billy Bob stopped walkin’, and he turned around and looked at me, and he got all serious-like, and he said, “Bubba, don’t you get the point of what we’ve seen tonight? There ain’t nobody who’s nobody, ‘cause in God’s eyes, everybody is somebody!”

And I felt the tears come up in my eyes, and I looked at my brother, and I said, “Say whut?”

Billy Bob said, “Bubba: The whole point of that baby layin’ in the cow feed is that God loves this crazy old world and everybody in it, includin’ us poor folk. Maybe especially us poor folk. But don’t you ever forget, Bubba: Everybody’s important. Everybody matters. Everybody is precious in the eyes of God!”

And then I remembered what that angel said: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to ALL people”—to ALL people—rich, poor; young, old; strong, weak; educated, and them that cain’t read. God done sent that baby to save all of us.

Well, that made me feel so good that I started tellin’ everybody I could, and so did my brothers. Y’all need to know there’s a God who loves ya’, and he done proved it by sendin’ this baby.

And remember: There ain’t nobody who’s nobody, ‘cause in God’s eyes, everybody is somebody.

And that there is some good news. Amen?

Y’all take care now, ya’ hear?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Good without God?



Yesterday I got a call from John Owensby, editor and publisher of the Kernersville News. It seems that American Atheists has put up two billboards in Kernersville encouraging people not to go to church. "Just be good for goodness' sake," the ads read. John asked me for a comment. I told him I'd like to take a few moments to get my thoughts together and then get back to him. 

I jotted my thoughts down in an email and sent them to John. I figured the reporter would pull out a couple of quotes, but John decided to turn my email into an article. He ran it on page 2 as a sidebar to the story about the billboards. 

For those of you who don't live in K-Vegas, here's the email-turned-article:

“Be good for goodness’ sake” refers to the phrase “Good without God” that atheist groups often use. Their point is that people can live good lives without God, and that believers only do good to gain reward or avoid punishment. This is a mischaracterization of what Christians believe. We have been saved by God’s grace, not through works, so any good we do is a response of gratitude for what God has done for us, not an attempt to earn salvation.

Can atheists be “Good without God?” My response is, how do we know what “good” is? The historical fact is that our society’s understanding of good has been shaped by the Judeo-Christian religious worldview that has influenced Western Civilization for 2000 years. So even if a non-believer does good things, that person is still being influenced by God (or at least people who believe in God).

It’s ironic that the sign refers to “holidays” when the very word means “holy days.” It’s also ironic that Santa Claus, who appears on the sign, is based on Saint Nicholas, a third century Christian bishop who was known for caring for children and giving gifts to the poor. (Legend says that he dropped gifts down the chimney at night so the recipients would not be embarrassed.) So, by mentioning holy days and depicting a Christian bishop, the anti-church sign itself exhibits the lasting influence of the Christian faith.

I don’t think people realize how much good Christians have done throughout history. It was Christians who first started hospitals, orphanages, and universities as we know them today. Early Christians fought for the rights of women and children. The early church was the first multi-cultural community in the ancient world. Even today, many, if not most social service agencies, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc. are run by Christians. Yes, we’ve had our bad moments—the crusades, the inquisition, etc.—but the good far outweighs the bad. And it makes me really sad to see people denouncing this faith that has made such a positive difference in the world.

It also makes me sad when I consider that at this time of year Christians are coming together to celebrate some of the most positive aspects of our faith: unconditional love, giving, charity, family, community, hope for the future. It saddens me that American Atheists has chosen this time of year to run these ads. It feels like a very deliberate slap in the face.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Church Can Be ... ANYONE

Second sermon in the "Church Can Happen Anywhere" series:

So you’ve decided you want to learn more about Jesus. You want to get close to Jesus. You want to get to know Jesus.

And you decide the way to do that is to read through the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—all the way to Revelation. So you get your Bible, and you blow off the dust. You get a cup of coffee (or some hot tea, or cocoa). You sit down in a comfortable chair, and you’re thinking “This is going to be great. The most important book in the world. Great stories, great literature…”

And you open up to the first page of the New Testament—and the first thing you encounter is a long list of names:

Abraham begat Isaac
Isaac begat Jacob
Jacob begat Judah…

And you think, “What is this? This is no way to start the most important book in the world! Every good writer knows you have to capture people’s attention. You need to pull the reader in, from the very first line. You know, like “It was a dark and stormy night.” Now that’s a great first line!

So, why does Matthew start his Gospel with a genealogy? I’m going to tell you, but first let me tell you this. This whole business of genealogy got me curious about my own background. So I did some research this week, and I found out that one of my ancestors was a fellow named Georg Heinrich Weidner—also known as Henry Weidner. He sailed across the Atlantic in 1740 in a ship called the Molly. And he came down the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley and was the first European to settle in what is now Hickory, North Carolina. And the story in my family is that my great, great, great…grandfather Henry Weidner was a member of the royal family of Saxony, Germany—and one of his brothers was the father of Prince Albert (you know, the guy in the can). And this summer I traveled to England and I saw the Prince Albert Hall and the huge gold statue of Prince Albert, and now I find out I might be related to that guy! How cool is that?

And then I thought about this: my wife Lorie—her maiden name is Carlisle—and this summer, she went to England and she went to the town of Carlisle, where her people are from. And she saw Carlisle Cathedral and Carlisle Castle. Lorie has a castle! How cool is that?

So what about Jesus? What kind of background does he come from?

To Jewish people in the first century that was a big question. Lineage was a big deal. In the first century, your background determines who you are.

If you’re sitting on a piece of land, and you’re claiming it’s yours, you better be able to trace your lineage back to the original owner of the land.

If you’re a priest in the temple, you better be able to trace your lineage back to Aaron, the brother of Moses.

If you claimed to be royalty, you better be able to trace your lineage back to David, the greatest king of Israel.

If you’re a first century Jew, you know your background, because your background determines who you are. That’s why the Gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy. But, but, but, but – there’s something very peculiar about the genealogy of Jesus. There’s something in this list of who begat who that you would almost never find in a first century Jewish genealogy.

So what’s unique about the genealogy of Jesus? WOMEN. The genealogy of Jesus includes women.

And this is amazing, because first century culture was very patriarchal. Lineage was traced through the male parent, through the father. You would only list the mother’s name if you were trying to make a point.

So let’s look at the women Matthew includes.


Tamar. Her story is very sad. She married one of the sons of Judah, his first son. But he died before they had any children. So Judah’s second son fulfilled his brotherly duty and he married her so that the land would stay in the family—but he tricked her and cheated her out of having children. And then he died.

And then Judah said to Tamar, “No way, you’re not getting my third son! You have a habit of making husbands die!”

So there’s poor Tamar---no husband, no children, no land, no way to take care of herself. But Tamar stood up for her rights. She figured out a way to stay in the bloodline of Judah’s family. And the way she did it was … well, I can’t really talk about it in worship. Suffice it to say that when Tamar finally had children their father was Judah.

And that’s how Tamar entered the bloodline of Jesus.


Rahab. Rahab practiced the world’s oldest profession. She was a lady of the evening. She was also a Canaanite, and the Canaanites were the enemies of Israel. Their sin had reached its full measure, and God had marked them for destruction.

So one day two Israelite soldiers went to spy out her city. And somehow the two Israelite spies ended up in her house, maybe because Rahab was also an innkeeper. At least, I hope that’s why they were in her house.

Pretty soon word got out that Israelite spies were in the city, and eventually the authorities came to Rahab’s house and knocked on the door and said, “Rahab—bring out those men in your house, ‘cause we know they’re spies.”

So Rahab took the guys up on the roof and hid them under flax stalks, and then she went back down to the front door and said, “There ain’t nobody here but little ol’ me!”

Then she went back to the Israelite spies and said, “Look—I know that your God is the one true God, and I know that God has given you this city—but please, please, please save me and my family.”

And the spies said, “OK. Despite the fact that you are one of the enemies of God’s people, and despite your less than honorable profession – because of your faith, we will save you, and welcome you into the family of God.”

And that’s how Rahab entered the bloodline of Jesus.


Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite. Also an enemy of Israel. The law said no Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation.

Ruth’s mother-in-law was an Israelite woman by the name of Naomi, who lived in Moab. And Naomi’s husband died, and Ruth’s husband died, and one day Naomi said, “There’s nothing for me in Moab. I’m going back to Israel.” And Ruth said, “I’ll go with you.” Naomi said, “Ruth, that’s crazy. You’re young and pretty. You could still get a husband, have children. My life is over, but you still have a shot at happiness.”

And Ruth looked at Naomi and said,

“Don’t urge me to turn back from you:
¾    Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.
¾    Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
¾    Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.

May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
And so these two poor widows—one old, one young—one from Israel, one from Moab—start an unlikely journey around the dead sea, through the desert, back to the land of Israel.

And to make a powerful story short, Ruth, who is still young and pretty, has a romantic fling with a rich older man named Boaz, and he marries her.

And that’s how Ruth entered the bloodline of Jesus.

The wife of Uriah. Notice how Matthew puts that: “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Matthew wants to remind us that Jesus was linked to King David by a woman who wasn’t even supposed to be his wife.

Her name was Bathsheba. One day when her real husband was off fighting with the army, Bathsheba was at home taking a bath, and King David was leering at her, and he had her brought to the palace, where he violated her, and then sent her home.

A little while later, it turns out that Bathsheba is pregnant – and David’s in trouble. He has to cover this up. So he brings Bathsheba’s husband Uriah home from the battlefield, figuring that while he’s home he would spend time with his wife, and everybody would think the baby was his.

But Uriah, being a faithful and loyal soldier, said, “No, I’m not going to go home and sleep in my own bed when my brothers in arms are sleeping on the ground!” So David brought him in the palace and got him drunk. But Uriah still wouldn’t go home. So David wrote a letter, stamped it with the royal seal, and said, “Go back to the battlefield and take this letter to your commanding officer.”

Little did Uriah know that what he was holding in his hand was the warrant for his own death.

And after Uriah was dead, David brought Bathsheba to his palace and said, “Now you’re mine.”

And that’s how Bathsheba entered the bloodline of Jesus.  


So what do these four women have in common?

Number one, they were all outsiders. Tamar was a Canaanite. Rahab was a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheba may have been a Hittite—we know she was married to one. None of these women was pure-bred Jewish. They were Gentiles. They were outsiders. Outsiders are in the family of Jesus.

Second, they were all victims. One was poor. One was a refugee. One was a victim of sexual harassment. Three were widows. And all four had to deal with horrible tragedies in their lives. Victims are in the family of Jesus.

Third, they were all involved in scandal. Every one of these women was involved in one way or another with some kind of immoral or disreputable behavior. You say, “Not Ruth!” Well, go read Ruth chapter 3 and you’ll see that Ruth did something pretty risqué. People involved in scandal are in the family of Jesus.

And fourth—they were all used by God. From their broken stories, God brought forth the greatest story ever told. They suffered, but God used it. They sinned, but God redeemed it. They struggled, but God restored them. God redeemed their stories, and brought them into the family of Jesus—and used them to change the world.

So what does this mean to you and me? Simply this: Church Can Be Anyone. Outsiders, victims, people with a past—you can be part of the family of Jesus!

The poor, the hurting, people who’ve suffered tragedy—people who’ve been violated and abused—you can be part of the family of Jesus!

Ethnic minorities—people of different backgrounds, races, socio-economic status—you can be part of the family of Jesus!

People who have messed up—people whose lives have been ruined by bad choices—whether yours or somebody else’s—you can be part of the family of Jesus! Church Can Be Anyone.

Matthew starts his Gospel with a genealogy, and he specifically mentions these four women, because he wants to let you know right up front—before he even talks about the birth of Jesus, or the miracles, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus—Matthew wants to let you know right up front that THIS GOSPEL IS FOR EVERYBODY.

So what are we doing, right up front, to show people that the gospel is for everybody?

Church can be anyone. Amen. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Church Can Happen...Anytime

My sermon for the first Sunday of Advent (November 29):

Our Advent Series is called “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” The title comes from a United Methodist ad campaign that’s aimed at getting us to go beyond the walls of the church and make a difference in the world. “Church Can Happen Anywhere” is a call to become a missional church, a church that’s focused outward.

You say, “What’s that got to do with Christmas?”  I say that’s the true meaning of Christmas. After all, Christmas is the story of how the Son of God went on a mission trip! He left his home in heaven in order to reach out to us.

Some Christians seem to feel like church is in here, the world is out there, and the purpose of being in here is to stay away from what’s out there. Christmas turns that idea on its head. Christmas tells how Jesus was up there, and he came down here to save the world. And now, if he’s in here (in your heart), he moves us to go out there and make a difference!

And when we do that, church can happen anywhere.

Think about this: The whole Christmas story is about missions and outreach. You have Mary and Joseph who were poor and homeless. You have the Wise Men who were foreigners. You have the Shepherds—after they saw Jesus, the first thing they did was go out and spread the message.

When we reflect on the Baby in the Manger and why he came, that should lead us to move outward to the world he came to save.

And when we do that, church can happen anywhere.  

Church can happen anywhere – and church can also happen ANYTIME. That’s the key word for today—anytime.

You may not realize that one of the goals of Advent is getting ready for the second coming of Christ. The word Advent means “coming.” At Advent we remember that the one who came as a baby in a manger will come again as a king in glory

And when’s that going to happen?  ANYTIME.

Americans are absolutely fascinated with the end of the world.

We have movies like 2012,
The Road,
Armageddon,
Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

There are over 400 movies about the end of the world!

59% of Americans are convinced that the end of the world, or at least the beginning of it, will happen during their lifetimes.

We’re fascinated with this subject. I would bet that most of you have read at least one of the Left Behind novels. That series sold over 65 million copies worldwide!

A lot of the best-selling Christian books are about the end of the world.  A lot of the most watched Christian TV shows are about the end of the world.

And we’re always asking questions:
            -When’s it going to be?
            -How’s it going to happen?
            -Where’s it going to start?
            -Who’s going to set it off?

Lots of questions, lots of theories, lots of debate, lots of websites and seminars and books, lots of very complicated charts with complicated timelines…

Let me ask you something: Is this really what Jesus wants us to be doing?
-          Is this really how Jesus wants us to spend our time?
-          Is this really how Jesus wants us to spend our money?


When it comes to the end of the world, what you need to know is really not complicated. In Matthew 24, Jesus tells us THREE THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW about his second advent and the end of the world:

#1 – Matthew 24, verses 23-27

23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
--Matthew 24:23-27 NRSV

First thing to see:  When Jesus comes back, it will be unmistakable.

            -It’s not going to be a secret
            -There’s not going to be any confusion. 

Now, what Jesus predicted about false messiahs has come true:

            -David Koresh
            -Sun Myung Moon
            -A guy in the Philippines who says he’s the second coming of Christ
-A guy in England who says he’s the second coming of Christ

But Jesus is not going to come back like that. Look at verse 30:

30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.

We are talking about a cataclysmic apocalyptic event—not a hidden mystery—but the end of the world as we know it. As CS Lewis said, “When the author walks onto the stage, the play is over.”

For the second thing, look at verse 36

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Now, how much clearer can that be? What does it say? “About that day or hour NO ONE KNOWS.”

So, here’s the second thing: When Jesus comes back, it will be unexpected

And yet, throughout history, people have been ignoring this clear teaching and setting dates anyway!

In the 1800s, a preacher named William Miller predicted that Christ would return between
March 21, 1842 – March 21, 1843. When it didn't happen, he re-set date for some time between
October 20-22, 1844. Miller got together a group of 200 or so people. They sold their possessions, put on white robes, gathered together and waited. You and I can only imagine their embarrassment when October 22 came and went and they were still sitting there.

We think people today might not be so crazy, but we were hearing the same kind of reports back in the 80s when Edgar C. Whisenant mailed out a book called 88 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1988. People started selling their possessions. One lady had her dog put to sleep. A Christian TV station played taped messages telling the people left behind what to do.

And then of course just a few years ago, Harold Camping and the Family Radio Ministry said the world would end on May 21, 2011. They spent 5 million dollars on billboards announcing the date. When it didn’t happen, Harold Camping reset the date for October 21. When that didn’t happen, Camping, much to his credit, issued a statement saying that his efforts to predict a date were “sinful” (his words) and that he should have listened to Matthew 24:36 – But about that day and hour no one knows…

And that leads to the third thing: It could happen ANYTIME.

42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 

44 Therefore you also must be ready…
                                    --Matthew 24:42-44a


When Jesus talks about the end of the world, the bulk of his teaching is on this theme of GETTING READY.

And in Matthew 25, he tells us exactly HOW he wants us to get ready. In fact, he spends an entire chapter on this theme. He tells three stories about getting ready:  


1-      The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13):

Jesus says there were ten bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom to come during the night. Each one had an oil lamp that she would light when the bridegroom came. Five of the bridesmaids did not bring enough oil. They asked the other five if they could borrow some oil, but those said, “No, there’s not enough for us and you. Go buy some more oil.” But the stores were closed (because it wasn’t Black Friday, when they’re open all night) and the five foolish bridesmaids could not buy any oil. And when the groom showed up, those five were not allowed into the feast.

What this story means is this: You can’t buy faith from somebody else. Now is the time to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now is the time to grow your faith. Now is the time to fill your lamp with oil (faith), so that when he comes back, you will be identified as an invited guest because your lamp burns with love for the bridegroom.

So let me ask you: Have you made a personal decision to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ? Or are you trying to buy faith from somebody else, like your mother, your father, your grandparents, or whoever?


2-      The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30):

Jesus says that a man went away on a trip. He called his servants together, and gave them talents (a unit of money). He gave five talents to one, two to the next, and one talent to the third. When the man returned, he called his servants together to give an account of what they did with their talents. The servant who got five talents had invested well and doubled the master’s money. The master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” The servant who had two talents also invested well and doubled the master’s money—and like the first one, he heard the master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” But the third servant—the one who had one talent—buried his money in the ground and did nothing with it. To him the master said, “You wicked and lazy servant!”

So, between now and the time when Jesus comes back, what are you doing with your life? What are you doing with your talents? How are you using what you have, whatever you have, to expand the master’s kingdom?

And when Jesus comes back, will you hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” Or will you realize too late that you have wasted your life?


3-The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46):

And then, in verses 31-46, Jesus tells the most haunting story of all. It’s a picture of Judgment Day, when Jesus comes again in his glory. He separates the nations like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on his right hand he says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcome me. I was without clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.” And those folks respond, “We never saw you in any of those situations!” And Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

And then Jesus turns to the people on his left, and says, “I was hungry and you let me starve. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing. I was a stranger and you left me out in the cold. I need clothes and you didn’t care. I was sick and you ignored me. I was in prison and you said I deserved what I got and then forgot about me.” And those folks say, “Lord! When did we ever see you…” And Jesus says, “Whatever you did NOT do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”

So I have to ask you: What are you doing for the least, the last, and the lost? Because if you love Jesus, that’s what you should be focusing on!

If you want to be ready for the end of the world, then put down your charts and maps and books and timelines and predictions and go serve the least of these.

If you love Jesus, go serve the least of these. Because Jesus loves the poor and the hurting so much that he says, “I am them.” And when he comes back to judge the living and the dead, this is going to be a major item on his agenda: “What did you do for the least of these?”

And when we go out beyond the walls of the church to serve the least of these, church can happen anywhere:

-          When we feed the homeless at Bethesda Center, or Rupert Bell Park, church can happen anywhere.

-          When we provide clean water to developing nations, where dirty water kills more people than anything, church can happen anywhere.

-          When we welcome Hispanic children who need tutoring to the Open Arms Community House in Winston-Salem, church can happen anywhere.

-          When we provide winter coats for children who need them, church can happen anywhere.

-          When a 2-year-old in our church has a birthday party, and her mom asks that the guests bring gifts for sick babies, church can happen anywhere.

-          When a bunch of Main Street folks go over to Forsyth Prison to hold a worship service on a Sunday night, church can happen anywhere.


And here’s the thing: Church needs to happen anywhere, because the second coming could happen ANYTIME.

Friday, November 27, 2015

About Those Red Coffee Cups...

















I was invited to write an article for a local Christian newspaper. But, as so often happens, I missed the deadline! So, I'm posting it here. As you can see from OTHER POSTS on this blog, I have a real passion for rethinking how we celebrate Christmas. 


A big flap broke out earlier this month when Starbucks introduced their holiday cups. This year’s cups are red—no snowflakes, no ornaments, no snowmen—just red.

Some Christians have seen this as another salvo in the “war on Christmas." One evangelist posted a video calling on Christians to go to Starbucks, order a latte, and give their name as “Merry Christmas,” so that the barista would be forced to write a Christian greeting on the plain red cup.

What I’m about to write might make some readers angry—but please hear me out. I’m uncomfortable with how some of us have reacted to the “war on Christmas.” Do I want to keep Christ in Christmas? Absolutely. But I think there are better ways to do that than to boycott stores that say “Happy Holidays,” or protest the term “winter break,” or complain about coffee cups.

I think the way to win the “war on Christmas” is to re-think the way we celebrate Christmas in the first place. What if we made Christmas a real birthday party for Jesus? What if we made Christmas a time to give Jesus the gifts he really wants? You’ll find his wish list in Matthew 25:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).

Many Christian families are now in the habit of foregoing one, some or all Christmas gifts and instead, making donations in honor of each other. I once served a church of 300 people who gave over $40,000 on one Christmas Eve to Living Water International to drill clean water wells in developing nations. I was amazed. These people gave fewer presents to each other (some gave none) and brought the money they saved to this special offering, which they considered a birthday present for Jesus.

That’s just one example. Some people spend Christmas day at the homeless shelter, or the hospital, or the prison, showing the love of Christ. Some visit nursing homes and sing carols. Some take food and gifts to police officers and first responders to thank them for being at their posts on Christmas day. At Main Street UMC, we’re having a free Christmas Brunch for the community. (If you’d like to come, please make a reservation by calling 993-3411.)

These are just a few ways to keep Christ in Christmas by showing people his love. I’m sure you can think of others.

There’s no question that our society is becoming less Christian. Morality is breaking down. Church attendance is declining. Our influence is waning. The trends are alarming, and many of us are (rightly) concerned.

But remember that our job is to win people to Jesus, not to monitor how secular businesses greet people. I think we’ll win more people by putting faith in action than by boycotting stores or writing angry posts on Facebook.

Anybody can say the words, “Merry Christmas.” It takes committed Christ followers to step up, sacrifice, and be the hands and feet of Jesus. In this way we communicate the message in ways a non-believing world can understand.

I believe that as we “let [our] light shine before others”—and we pray for the Holy Spirit to use our efforts—the world will “see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).  Christmas is an especially good time to do that.


And that’s how I think we can keep Christ in Christmas.