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Jars of Light

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

June 3, 2018

 

My wife and I went to Raleigh this week. Since she is serving as pastor of a Lutheran Church now, not only did she have to go to the Moravian Synod, she also had to go to the Lutheran Synod. It was held on Friday and Saturday in Raleigh. They have Synod every year instead of every 4 years like we do. So they have it not at a conference center, but at a hotel. Even though I had no desire to attend another Synod, we were paying for the room, so I decided to tag along and just hang out. Thankfully I didn’t have to actually attend any meetings.

Driving down to Raleigh on Thursday, I felt a little tug at my heart when, as we rode on I-40 through Greensboro, I saw the exit for 421 South towards Siler City. I remember taking that exit many times as a kid going to visit my grandmother. My dad grew up in Siler City and his mother (my grandmother) lived in Siler City all her life. When I was young, we would often go down and spend the weekend with her.

There wasn’t a lot to do in Siler City. Those Saturdays were spent visiting my great aunts and uncles and riding by Aunt Bee’s house. After she retired from show business, Aunt Bee- from the Andy Griffith Show- moved to Siler City. So we would always have to cruise by her house when we were in town even though we never actually saw her. Those visits to Siler City were far from exciting, yet I remember always enjoying them.

The best part came on Saturday evenings in the summertime, when my brother and sister and I would each get an empty glass jar, poke holes in the lid, and take it outside into my grandmother’s yard and try to catch lightning bugs. Her yard seemed to be covered with thousands upon thousands of those fascinating insects.

We used to fill those jars with as many as we could catch and then we would shake the jar, just a little bit, to try to get them to all light up at the same time. It was a beautiful sight to see those little bugs making their own light shine, to see that light make that whole jar, even the whole night, shine so bright.  Of course it had to be a glass jar. It wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect with any other kind of jar. Maybe we could have seen a little bit of the light shining out of the top of the but that is not nearly as good as seeing all the light, shining together.

I was thinking about this as I was contemplating what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the light of God shining in in our hearts and about how we have this treasure in clay jars, so it can be clear that it comes from God and not from us. I’m not really sure how keeping this treasure in a clay jar is helpful. It would be kind of like keeping those light’ning bugs in a clay jar. It would tend to be contrary to the whole point of it all. What’s the point of having treasure like that if you can’t even see it. Didn’t Jesus tell us not to hide our lights under a bushel basket? This seems like the same thing.

It’s an interesting idea, keeping treasure, any kind of treasure, in clay jars. It doesn’t make much sense at all. Not now and it probably didn’t even then. When Paul was writing, a clay jar would have been far down the list of places where anyone would keep treasure. They are too fragile, too porous, too cheap- they are easily thrown away.

They are even mentioned in the cleanliness laws in Leviticus. Where most things that come into contact with something or someone who is unclean can be washed and made clean again, a clay jar can’t. Once that happens it has to be broken and destroyed. That is how easily contaminated they are. And also how disposable they are. When I have a treasure, I want to keep it in something solid, strong, and permanent- basically the opposite of a clay jar.

The RSV and KJV translations use “earthen vessels” instead of “clay jars”. I think that this is helpful. It helps me to not get so hung up on the whole literal image of a clay jar and see the deeper metaphor that Paul was using. Certainly a clay jar is an earthen vessels, it’s made from the dust and dirt of the earth,  but there are many more things that also qualify as earthen vessels, including our own human bodies.

I think that this is what Paul was getting it. WE are the earthen vessels, the clay jars, that the treasure is kept in. That makes a lot more sense. For we are certainly like clay jars, at least our bodies are. They are fragile, they are breakable, they are even disposable.  And they are temporary.

As Paul wrote in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

When Paul writes of keeping treasure in jars of clay, he is reminding us that God dwells in us. The God who created everything that is- the heavens, the earth, and life itself, dwells in our fragile, breakable, disposable bodies. This is the treasure that is in us, this is the light that shines out of the darkness. It is the light and the love of God.

God made that light and love visible to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When God became human, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the light began to shine in and through the darkness. The darkness that could not, and can not, and will not,  overcome it. And we see the glory of God in that light, in him, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

We see that glory and that glory shines in our hearts as Jesus dwells within us. It is not us that shines, but it is the glory of God shining in us and through us. It is telling that Paul refers to this as an “extraordinary power.” I don’t think that he is referring  solely to the power of the light shining in the darkness, though that certainly is an extraordinary power. I think that even beyond that the extraordinary power that dwells in us is the power of love.

Love is why the Word became flesh, love is why God became human. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God did it all because of love. God became flesh and dwelt among us because He loves us. God gave up all that he has and all that he is because He loves us. God then gave up the life He had taken on, He allowed himself to be shamed and humiliated, He allowed himself to be lifted up on the cross to die, because He loves us. “For God so loved the world…”  That love represents an extraordinary power.

I think that we get so caught up in the the first part, in the whole business of not perishing but having everlasting life, in our worry about our lives lived in these earthen vessels, that we lose sight of the second part. We lose sight of the love. It is kind of overwhelming to contemplate the idea, the fact, that the same God who created the heavens and earth and all the dwells in them, the same God who was and is and is to come, the same God who is all seeing and all knowing is also all loving. How can God look at the world, with all its faults and sins and hatred, and love it so much that he sent his only Son to save it?

For that matter, how can God look at us, with all our faults and sins and selfishness, and love us so much that He became one of us, and allowed himself to die so that we might have eternal life? How can God love ME so much that he died for me? Yet that is exactly what God did. The truth that God came to us and Jesus died for us tells us that the extraordinary power  of God that dwells in us is LOVE.

These clay jars, these earthen vessels where we keep this extraordinary power, well they are meant to be broken. I don’t mean that our bodies are necessarily meant to be broken, to be injured, to be hurt, even though they are fragile and those things happen to them all the time. What I mean is that they are meant to let the light shine, to let the love out, to let loose the extraordinary power that dwells within them. Because even though our bodies are only temporary, the light of the love of Jesus that dwells within them is eternal. And it needs to be seen.

So even though we are afflicted in every way, we are not crushed; we are perplexed, but we are not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but we are not forsaken; we are struck down, but not destroyed. This life that we live is hard, but it is not our only life. There is something more. We are something more than these earthen vessels, these clay jars. We have the light of God in us. We have the love of God in us.

We can let that light, that extraordinary power of the love of God that dwells in us, we can let it out. We can let it out of these earthen, temporary vessels, and we can share it with the world. Because we know that no matter what, one day our perishable bodies will put on imperishability and our mortal bodies will put on immortality and death will be swallowed up in victory. Death is at work in us, but the life of Jesus, the love that dwells in us and the light that shines through us is greater than death and has overcome death.

Brothers and sisters,  We are not jars of clay but we are jars of light. Let your light shine and let the love of God that dwells in you, break free so that it can bring light and love into this dark world. Until he comes.

Amen.

 

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Easter Egg Hunt  Saturday, March 31

Children will be invited to participate in age level hunts throughout the morning:
10:10 a.m. – Infants and Toddlers (2 & Under)
10:40 a.m. – Preschoolers (3 & 4 year olds)
11:10 a.m. – Young Kids (5 & 6 year olds)
11:40 a.m. – Older Kids (7 & Older)

Enjoy other activities throughout the morning in Fellowship Hall: Face Painting, Guessing Games, Cake Walk, Pin the Tail on the Bunny…the Coloring Station, Pom-Pom Painting, Bubble Wand Creation and Origami.

Call for Easter Goodies for the Cake Walk – please drop off individually wrapped treats in the church kitchen before 9:30 a.m. on March 31- Label your items “Cake Walk”.

To help with the Easter Egg Hunt, please contact Evie Blum (evie@newphilly.org or 336-765-2331 ext. 307) to let us know you can help

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Nursery available for All Services

Palm Sunday
Sunday, March 25, 9 AM & 11:10 AM

Holy Week Readings
Monday, March 26, 7 PM
Tuesday, March 27, 7 PM (Band prelude 6:45 PM)
Wednesday, March 28, 7 PM

Maundy Thursday Communion & Readings
Thursday, March 29, 7 PM (Band prelude 6:30 PM)

Good Friday Tenebrae Service
Friday, March 30, 7 PM (Band prelude 6:30 PM)

Easter Worship
Sunday, April 1, 10 AM (no Sunday School)
Parents are asked to gather their children from the nursery prior to the Easter Liturgy so we may all worship together as a complete congregation.

Easter Morning Liturgy
Sunday, April 1, 11 AM (Begins at the front of the church and processes to God’s Acre.)
Remember to bring fresh flowers and greenery on Easter morning.  A large wooden cross, wrapped in wire, will be in the sanctuary.
Come early and arrange your natural spring bouquet on the cross before worship.

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February 18 – First Sunday in Lent/ Communion

February 19 – 10:30 a.m. 1 Peter Bible Study, six sessions looking at the book of 1 Peter led by Grace Shutt

February 20 & 27, March 6, 13, 20 – 12 p.m. Who’s Who in Holy Week, five sessions meeting the people we hear about in the stories of Holy Week led by Pastor Joe Moore (day)

February 21 & 28, March 7, 20, 27 – 6 p.m. Who’s Who in Holy Week, five sessions meeting the people we hear about in the stories of Holy Week led by Pastor Joe Moore (evening)

March 4 & 11 – 4:30 p.m. Gospel of Mark study session led by Pastor Worth Green in preparation for the March 18 “Gospel of Mark” presentation by John Robinson

March 4, 11, 18 – 4:30 p.m. Children’s Lenten program “What Lent Means to Me” led by Evie Blum (March 11 New Philly Kids incorporated into this program.)

March 18 – 4:30 p.m. “Gospel of Mark” presentation by John Robinson

March 25 – Palm Sunday

March 26 – 30 – 7 p.m. Holy Week Readings – including Maundy Thursday Communion and Good Friday Tenebrae Service

March 31 – Egg Hunt (details TBA)

April 1 – 10 a.m. Easter Morning Worship

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Fly Eagles Fly – sermon by Rev. Joe Moore

Isaiah 40:21-31

February 4, 2018

 

For the last two weeks, I have been driving my wife crazy. (Well, she would probably say that I have been driving her crazy for the last 22 years) But specifically for the last couple of weeks, I have been texting her or calling her or just asking her “Hey, did you hear that the Eagles are in the Super Bowl?”

Yes, I am an Eagles fan. I come by it honestly. As I mentioned last time I preached, our first church was in New Jersey. South Jersey to be exact. And South Jersey is basically a suburb of Philadelphia. We could actually see the Philly skyline from our house in New Jersey. So naturally, the Philly sports teams dominate the news. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers are all anyone talks about.

So while we were living there, I adopted some of those teams as my own. I would root for the Phillies (if they weren’t playing the Braves) and the 76ers (on the rare occasion that I paid attention to the NBA) and I even had a Flyers t-shirt (despite knowing nothing about hockey). But the Eagles became my team, primarily since football is my favorite spectator sport.

While I naturally wanted to support the local teams, it also helped me as a pastor there. It gave me an instant conversation starter with the members of the congregation. It was kind of like what Paul meant when he wrote “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

I’m not saying that I became an Eagles fan “for the sake of the Gospel” but it helped to establish some common ground with people that I really didn’t have much in common with otherwise. Being a North Carolina boy in New Jersey made me something of a stranger in a strange land. That is really the first steps in sharing the Gospel- finding something that brings you together, establishing a relationship, building trust. Coming together over things that are less significant allows you to then share about the more important things- like the good news of Jesus Christ.

From the very beginning of Christianity, followers of Jesus have been called to share the gospel- Jesus sent his 12 disciples out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Then the risen Christ expanded that mission when he said “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

 Sometimes I feel that we don’t really take that call as seriously as we should. We know that we are supposed to share the gospel. And we try to share the gospel. But it is not the driving force of our life and faith. We share it when it is convenient, or comfortable, or safe. But we seldom take risks to share the gospel, we seldom venture out of our comfort zones, we don’t have a sense of urgency or expectancy. We don’t feel like Paul does when he proclaims “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”

That’s a pretty powerful statement. I don’t think that we have ever felt “great sorrow or distress” when we fail to proclaim the gospel. We may feel a little bit guilty, but it is a passing guilt that quickly fades. We may know that we should but we don’t really feel that bad when we don’t. We certainly don’t feel “woe”

I see three main reasons for this- 1) the sense of urgency isn’t as great for us as it was for the first Christians and 2) We haven’t had the Gospel “proclaimed” to us and 3) proclaiming the Gospel is hard! I want to spend a few minutes taking a closer look at each of these.

1)We don’t proclaim the Gospel with the same urgency that the earliest Christians had. Let’s face it, over time the sense of urgency will fade. Jesus’ original disciples, and other first century Christians, like Paul, believed that the return of Jesus was imminent. They believed that it would happen in their lifetime. Therefore they did not have much time to share the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, with the

Knowing both the command of Jesus to be his witnesses to the end of the earth and to make disciples of all nations combined with the belief that Jesus was returning soon, meant that they HAD to share the gospel as quickly as possible. I imagine that if we were living then, we would feel the same. But we aren’t living then. We are living now, and almost 2000 years have passed and believers are still waiting for Jesus to return. And we all know how that works. The longer we wait for something, the less urgent, the less immediate it seems. Sure, we still believe that it is going to happen. But instead of expecting it to happen tomorrow or next week or even next year, we just think that it is going to happen “someday” but who really knows when.

So we don’t feel that urgency to share the gospel. We know that if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have today, there is always tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, there is always the day after that and the day after that. For two millennia, there has always been another day, another opportunity, to share the good news of Jesus. It seems almost arrogant of us to think that this is THE day or this is THE time.

But maybe we should. Maybe we should try to revive that sense of urgency and immediacy to share the gospel that motivated the first Christians. Because we have been entrusted with the same gospel that they felt such urgency to share. We have been given the same mission, received the same calling. And the news is just as good now as it was then. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.”

This news is something that we should never hesitate to share. It is news that can’t wait until tomorrow. It is news that requires being told to the whole world. For God did not send his son, the Word did not become flesh, just for us, or for some of us. But for the whole world and it is up to us to tell the world. So we can’t stop until we have made disciples of ALL nations, until we have been Jesus’ witnesses to the very ends of the earth. We need to reclaim that sense of urgency.

The second reason that we don’t proclaim the Gospel as we should is that we have never had the Gospel proclaimed to us. Yes, we are all believers but our faith is primarily an inherited faith. It is something that we have received from our parents and family and church. Our faith is not something that we didn’t have one day and were told about the next. But it is something that we have always had, and always known. It is something that we have cared for and nurtured over the course of our lives. And that is a good thing. But it also limits our understanding of what it means to have the Gospel PROCLAIMED to us.

Imagine what it would be like to hear about Jesus and his love for the very first time; to hear the Good News that you had never heard before. It would be news that was actually NEW. I would want to run and tell everyone all about it. Kind of like how I have felt the need to text Kelly every day about the Eagles being in the Super Bowl. It’s just something that is impossible to keep to yourself.

We need to treat the Gospel in the same way. We need to be so excited about it, so amazed by it, that we can’t help but tell everyone we meet about how exciting and amazing it is. We believe that, don’t we? We believe that the Gospel of Jesus is exciting and amazing, right?

The final reason that we fail to take our call to proclaim the Gospel as seriously as we should is that it is just hard to proclaim the good news. And I mean that very literally. It is hard work. It takes confidence and commitment. It takes patience and persistence. Like a Boy Scout earning his Eagle award.

To proclaim the Gospel, we need to elevate the gospel. We need to see it- not as something that is essential on Sunday morning but nonessential the rest of the week- but as something, actually the ONE thing that is essential always. We need to remember that we need the good news; that everyone needs the good news.

And we need to believe that it is up to us to share that good news. Yet, in the midst of our calling to share the good news, we need to know that even though everyone needs the good news, not everyone is ready for it. Not everyone is ready to hear the gospel, to receive the gospel, to believe the gospel. But we can’t let that deter us, we can’t let that defeat us. We can’t let that even slow us down or stop us.

We have to keep on sharing the good news of Jesus even with people who aren’t ready to hear it, or receive it, or believe it. We have to keep on doing it until God makes them ready. It’s not up to us to determine when and where people are ready to hear and receive the gospel. Our task is to proclaim it- to all people and all the time.

God knows how difficult that can be. God knows and God helps. The words we read in Isaiah make that clear. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

God gives us all that we need to fulfill the mission he has given us. God gives us power and strength. God allows us to fly like eagles, soaring higher and higher, as we seek to help the world claim the victory over love over hate, of light over darkness, of life over death. That is the Gospel, that is the good news. Through Jesus, love wins over hate, light overcomes darkness, life defeats death.

So let us regain that urgency that Christians once had because the good news is THAT good. Let us proclaim the Gospel that we have received. And let us walk and not faint, let us run and not be weary. Let us fly like Eagles and tell all the world the good news of their salvation. Do you not know? Have you not heard? We do know and we have heard, so now let us go and share what we know and tell what we have heard.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 31, 2017

New Philadelphia Moravian Church

 

The days between Christmas and New Year’s are always kind of “off”, kind of different from normal. Christmas is still lingering. Yesterday, as I was getting the golf cart out of the church garage to have it ready to be used this morning, I noticed that the Christmas lights that were on it for Christmas Eve were still burning. Their brightness had dimmed quite a bit, but it was still there. That’s what this week feels like.

The decorations are often still up but they always seem to look a little less  colorful and festive than they did last week. There are football games during the middle of the week! Many people take vacation days, school is out and almost everyone has a different schedule. No one seems to even know what day of the week it even is.

For me, that feeling has been heightened by the fact that Kelly and Zach and I  are just back from Winter Camp at Laurel Ridge. Zach was a camper (along with 35 other 6th to 12th graders plus a couple of college freshmen) and Kelly and I were the Deans and led the program. We had a wonderful time but it certainly wasn’t the way we would normally spend a Tuesday through Friday. Regardless, it was a great four days of fun and fellowship and even some learning. The program was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but they are the twelve days starting on Christmas Day and ending on Epiphany (January 6). So that would make today the 7th day of Christmas. And on the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. Most of our familiarity with the twelve days  of Christmas comes from the song- the one where the true love gives increasingly elaborate (and often strange) gifts for each of the 12 days. And the gifts are cumulative, so over the 12 days of Christmas, you get 12 partridges in 12 pear trees and so on for a total of 364 gifts. Despite the lack of any real relatability (who wants 3 french hens as a Christmas gift?) the song has become a Christmas tradition.

Kelly and I based our program for Winter Camp on the legend that the song was written as a secret catechism for Catholics in England. The theory is that it was a code to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in England. While it is only a legend and there isn’t really any way to prove  that that is why it was written or what it really means, it is interesting.

Each of the 12 days represents a basic point of Christian doctrine. “My true love” who gives all the gifts is God, the partridge in a pear tree is Jesus, the 2 turtle doves are the OT and NT, the 3 French hens equal faith, hope and love, the 4 calling birds are the 4 gospels, the 5 golden rings are the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the OT) the 6 geese a-laying are the 6 days of creation, the 7 swans a-swimming are the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 8 maids a-milking are the 8 Beatitudes, the 9 ladies dancing are the 9 fruit of the Spirit, the 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 Commandments, the 11 pipers piping are the 11 FAITHFUL disciples, and the 12 drummers drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

Sharing this with the kids at Winter Camp was lot of fun and led to some interesting discussions about what the basics of our faith and belief are. But sadly, since we were trying to cover 12 days of Christmas in 4 days, we didn’t have time to go into a lot of depth on any of the gifts. And we didn’t really get to talk much about the whole  idea that the song was written as a means of sharing faith in secret. Even if that is not really the reason the song was written, even if it is not really what the whole thing is all about, it is still fascinating to think about. Primarily because we rarely, if ever, have had to hide our faith, or practice it in secret.

We live in a time and place where we are free to live our faith and share our beliefs. But not all Christians do. In fact, over the 2 millennia of Christian faith, believers have frequently had to hide what they believed and who they were. Even going back to the very beginning itself. Our Gospel reading for today continues the story of Jesus’  birth and details the time when Jesus himself had to go into hiding for who he was.

It’s interesting how we take the very different Christmas stories from the gospels of Matthew and Luke and combine them into one narrative, even though that was not what the authors intended. We have the angels coming to visit Mary (in Luke’s gospel) and Joseph (in Matthew’s), to tell them that they will have a son and name him Jesus. Then we have Luke’s account of the journey to Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn so the baby was born and laid in a manger; the angels bringing good tidings to the shepherds; and Mary pondering all of it in her heart. In Matthew the wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find the CHILD (not a baby) in the house (not a manger) and then leave by another way so as not to tip off Herod to Jesus’ whereabouts.

We put it all together in one beautiful story that we put on Christmas cards and in Nativity scenes. But we always end it with the Wise Men and we never include the less acceptable continuation of the story- Herod’s slaughter of all the children under two years old and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into hiding in Egypt. It’s pretty obvious why we don’t include Herod’s murdering children in our Christmas celebrations. It is less obvious why we overlook the flight to Egypt. But I think I gained a better understanding of it as I considered the theory of the Twelve Days of Christmas being a secret catechism, being a secret way of sharing faith that has to be hidden.

We overlook Jesus having to hide in Egypt because we have never had to hide our faith. We have always been free to practice our faith out in the open. We have always been free to gather here and sing the hymns of faith and share the gospel and proclaim the good news that our Savior has been born. And while that is a great thing and a blessing we have that many Christians do not have, it also causes us to miss out on something.

In 2004, I had the chance to see first hand what it was like to have to be a Christian in secret. A colleague in ministry offered me the opportunity to join him on a mission trip to China. We were to spend 3 weeks teaching Chinese Christians how to teach the Gospel and the basics of Christian faith. We journeyed from the United States to Beijing then onto Shenyang, a city that I had never even heard of but it is the home of 8 million people. On our VISA applications, we listed the purpose of our trip as “visiting friends” since it was illegal to go there to share the gospel. When we arrived, we had to hang out in a tea shop until it was late enough to go to the “seminary” without attracting any attention. The seminary was actually a 3 bedroom apartment that served as a teaching facility for Chinese Christians who came from all over the region.

When we finally were clear to go to the apartment, before we got out of the car, we were instructed to put on our hats and to keep looking down if we passed anyone on the stairwell. It was unusual for Americans to be in the part of the city. It was far away from any tourist places and our arrival would attract attention, possibly unwanted attention. Once we made it into the apartment, we didn’t leave for a week. We weren’t even supposed to look out of the windows because we would risk being noticed. We were joined by 25 Chinese Christians who were anxious to learn new ways to share  their faith with the people in the villages that they had come from.

We were only able to communicate through an interpreter, as they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Chinese. But that really didn’t matter because what we shared was often shared without words- faith, hope, and love transcend language. The Chinese students traveled for hours on crowded trains to get there. If we had been discovered, I would have just been expelled from China and sent back to the United States. But the Chinese students would have likely faced lengthy prison sentences.

Think about that for a second- imagine being so committed to your faith that you would risk going to prison just to learn more. It is something that I had often read about but until I spent time with people for whom it was a very real possibility, I had never really grasped its importance. It helped me to see how much I take my faith for granted. And how much most Christians in our world take our faith for granted.

When we have the freedoms that we do, the freedom to practice our faith openly and to worship anywhere and everywhere, then we also have the freedom to NOT practice our faith, to not worship. And that is a freedom that we exercise far too often. In the midst of our freedom, our faith has become a faith of convenience. We practice it when it is convenient, when it fits our schedule, when it doesn’t require too much sacrifice on our part.

I recognize that I am preaching to the choir a bit on this one. After all you are here on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I should have preached this on Christmas Eve. But even the best of us, even the most committed among us, are guilty of taking our faith for granted, of practicing a convenient faith. But our God isn’t a God of convenience. Our God is a God of commitment.

God is so committed to us, that he became one of us. As Paul writes “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  That is commitment.

And it is something that we should not lose sight of during these 12 days of Christmas, or ever. God is so committed to us that he became one of us. He put aside his divinity to assume our humanity. He then gave himself over to death in order to bring us over to eternal life. That is the level of commitment that our God has to us. He  literally gave all that he is for us and to us.

It is really hard for us to understand that level of sacrifice. That’s why I’m glad  that the account of the flight to Egypt appears during our Christmas celebration. It reminds us, at the one time of year when it is the easiest to be a Christian, that it isn’t always so easy to practice our faith. There have been times, ever since those days right after Jesus was born, when it is downright dangerous. And there have been people who have made great sacrifices to share their faith, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Whether it is fleeing from their homes to the safety of anonymity or teaching the basics of faith in secret codes or risking imprisonment to learn how to teach others about Jesus, Christians have always made sacrifices for their faith, for their God, for their Savior.

So as we stand in the middle of these 12 days of Christmas, as we watch the old year pass away and a new year enter in, the questions are “What about us? What sacrifices will we make for our faith this year? How will we serve our God? How will we share the good news of salvation?”

I think that the answer to all of these questions comes is the same- to stop making our faith a faith of convenience, to stop having church be something that we do only when we don’t have anything better to do. Jesus’ ministry to us was first and foremost a ministry of presence. He came to us so that we might be able to come to him, so that we can draw closer to God. During 2018, I think that we should all commit  to doing the same. We should all commit to a ministry of presence rather than a faith of convenience.

That means being here. Being at church, being with our brothers and sisters as we worship, as we serve, as we learn, as we play, as we come together in the name of our Lord and Savior. It means giving of ourselves, not just when we feel like it, or when we don’t have anything better to do, but always. It means making the sacrifices for our faith necessary to make our faith part of our lives, every single day.

On the first day of Christmas, our true love gave himself to us. What are we  going to give to him?

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