Real Christians Risk!

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) He was one of those great characters in American history, yet his story began in Hungary. He was born in Budapest in 1874. The family moved to America when Harry was young. At first, his father was the Rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin. A few years later, the family moved again to New York City.  It was in the Big Apple that Harry tried show business. At first, he tried being a professional magician, with little success. Then, he tried escape acts. We know his name because of those acts. For a twenty-year period, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences.

His most famous stunt came on July 7, 1912. Houdini was taken to the middle of New York’s East River. Once in position, he was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. When the crate was pulled to the surface it was found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. It is a mystery to me. Can I ask you a question? Would anyone here consider doing that stunt? (I don’t even want to get into New York’s East River!) Harry Houdini was a daredevil. Do the people in your life consider you a daredevil? Do the people in your life consider you a risk taker? Do the people in your life consider you a coward? That takes us the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves at the end of the second chapter of James, verses fourteen through twenty-six. The topic for today is authenticity. He reminds us how important it is to be genuine in our faith. True discipleship must contain both words and the deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James says simple good behavior is not enough. After all, you cannot earn your salvation. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. They are in perfect balance. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

To underscore this single point, James gives us three examples. The first is as contemporary as this morning’s newspaper. Authentic Christianity can’t ignore basic human need, clothes and food. That is why we participate in food drives. We must respond. We must respond.The second example comes from the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. After a lifetime of waiting for a son, Abraham is in position to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s request. It is not a story about child abuse. However, it is a story about having the right priorities. Let there be no doubt about it. Abraham’s top priority was God. The third example is Rahab. Do you remember her story?

It comes from the second chapter of Joshua. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. During that time, they experienced the very best and the absolute worst. Their lives were in a constant state of flux, and only three things remained constant. The first was God, their spiritual leader. The second was Moses, their earthly leader. The third was this great promise of a future home, the Promised Land. Then the unthinkable happened – Moses died. I find it to be one of the cruelest things in the Bible. God did not permit Moses to enter the Promised Land. He only saw it from the distance from the top of Mount Nebo.

With Moses gone, the mantle of responsibility was placed on a new leader, Joshua. Change is not easy. It would be his job to lead the people into the Promised Land. That was not as easy as it sounds. The land was occupied by other people, and they didn’t want leave. It would take a military action. Joshua seemed to be the perfect leader for them. He was as much a warrior as a priest. Being a wise military man, he desires information about his enemy. So, he sends two spies into this foreign land. They are to report back to him when they return. It sounds kind of funny, but it is Bible. As soon as the spies get into the Promised Land, they enter the house of a prostitute, Rahab. (I will let you fill in the blanks.) God has always used the oddest people to do his work. When the authorities come to arrest the spies, Rahab risks everything. She hides the spies and sends the authorities off in another direction. (Joshua 2:1-7) She could have been executed for either one of those things. History is such a funny thing. We downplay the fact the hero in the story was a prostitute. We remember Rahab as a hero. The people of Jericho remember her as a traitor. It is safe to say, Rahab saved the invasion. She risked everything for God. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God?

Years ago, a ship-wrecked off the New England coast. A young member of the coast guard rescue crew said, “We can’t go out. We’ll never get back.” The grizzled old captain replied, “We have to go out. We don’t have to come back.” Most of us can relate to that story because we are simply afraid to go. Fear often paralyzes us. How you ever noticed how many cowards there are in our world?

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a man during the coldest day of this cold winter. The temperature was well below zero, and he longed for the warmth of Florida. I said, “I wish, I could get on a plane and fly south.” He said, “Not me! Those jets come down faster than they go up! I would drive.” I said, “You know you are in more danger driving to Florida then flying to Florida.” He said, “I know. That is why I am staying home.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to fly? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in society?

Several years ago, I was at the Canfield Post Office. I was standing in line to buy my stamps. It is not a large lobby, so I could hear the clerk waiting on the person ahead of me. The man was charged $25 to overnight a package to downtown Youngstown. When the man left, I walked up to the clerk and said, “Did you charge that man $25 to take the package downtown? For $20, I would have driven that package downtown.” The clerk responded, “It happens all the time. People are afraid to go into Youngstown.” Bad things can happen anywhere, even the suburbs. Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to travel downtown? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in the life of the church?

The church is part of our society, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find fear within our walls. I know it is true because fear has paralyzed me. One of my few regrets in life is, I never got a D. Min., a Doctor of Ministry. It would not have helped me in my career. However, it would have filled a void in my life. My seminary years were hard, and I feel like I missed so much. There was an academic itch that needs to be scratched. There was a time I really toyed with going back to school. There was always had an excuse. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the time. Something was always happening here or at home. My dyslectic eyes would make it impossible. Now my excuse is, I am too old. Can I be honest with you? The reason I never got a D. Min. was fear. I know I am not the smartest person on the planet, and I was afraid I would fail. I did not want to tell you I failed. I really did not want to tell my children I failed. I was afraid of failure, so I never tried. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? How many churches do you know that are paralyzed by fear?

I see it all the time. Every Sunday morning, I am looking out for visitors. They never sit up with me in the chancel area. They sit out with you! Sometimes they sit next to you. Later, I will talk to long-time worshippers and ask, “Did you talk to the person next to you?” Most of the time, people say, “No!” I ask, “Why?” “Because I didn’t know them. I didn’t know if they were new or not. I didn’t want to welcome him or her and find out they had been here for years. I didn’t want to look foolish, so I said nothing at all.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to talk to some you do not know?

Annually, on Good Friday, we go to Green Haven cemetery to observe the death of Christ. It is a natural place to be because it pounds home the point that Jesus really did die. As the service gets closer, I talk to people to promote the service. Every year, I get the same response. “No way!” Some tell me they are afraid of ghosts. For others, the fear is much more personal. One guy said it clearly, “Someday I am going to spend every day in that cemetery. I don’t want to go early, because I don’t want to be reminded of my own death.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid of death?

For over a decade my wife, Kathryn led volunteer in mission’s trips to Eastern Europe. We have been to Russia countless times. We have been to Ukraine several times. We have been to Belarus and Estonia. I have no clue how many trips. I have no clue how many people she has taken. I have no clue how many smiles she produced on the faces of those forgotten orphans. I have no clue how many have discouraged us from going through the years. I had one man say to me, “If she was my life, I would not let her go.” I responded, “That fine because she would have married you anyway.” One of the frustrations of the pandemic is we cannot travel to Eastern Europe. Would you like to go with us? Have you ever been paralyzed by fear?

Our world has no shortage of human need. I don’t need to read you a list; you know the list. God expects us to do something to help. The problem is, we are afraid. That is why we are more comfortable with charity than we are with missions. Charity involves collecting things for strangers. Missions involves getting personally involved with people. The chances of getting the needy of this world to come to our little piece of property is slim. That is why we must go, and that will take a certain amount of risk. Are you willing to risk your personal security? Fear has a way of paralyzing us. Faith lets us free. That is why the story of Rahab is so amazing. She risked it all for God. How much are you willing to risk? That is what makes James 2:14 so disturbing. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Real Christians risk.

How many of you remember Evel Knievel? He is remembered as an American Daredevil. In his career he knew many highs and many lows. (He broke 37 bones.) His stunts grabbed national attention. He got into being a daredevil for one reason, money. He was not making enough money as a motocross racer, so he decided to promote his motorcycle stunts. His first stunt was to jump over a box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. That stunt got him a sponsor. Soon, Knievel was regularly jumping his Harley Davidson over rows of cars, trucks, and even the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. His most famous stunt came in 1974, when he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle called the X-1. A malfunction caused the bike’s parachute to prematurely open and ruined the jump, but the media storm surrounding the event had already cemented Knievel’s reputation as the king of all daredevils. Would you ever jump over a box of rattlesnakes? Do you consider yourself a daredevil? In authentic Christianity, there is a certain amount of risk taking. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God? Real Christians risk!

Real Christians Love Equally

Charles Drew (1904-1950) was a brilliant medical doctor. His discovery of blood plasma resulted in saving thousands of lives in World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War. At Pearl Harbor, for example, 96% of those who received plasma survived. Dr. Drew’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed. At the conclusion of World War II, he was named director of the National Blood Bank Program and devoted himself to teaching doctors at Howard University Medical School. That is what makes the rest of the story so cruel. On April 1, 1950, while driving some young doctors to a conference, Dr. Drew was involved in an automobile accident in Burlington, N.C. He was rushed to a hospital, where his life could have been saved by plasma. But Dr. Drew was denied admission to the hospital because his skin was black. He died at the age of 45 on the way to another hospital 26 miles away. I find that story to be very upsetting. I hope you find that story upsetting because God does too. That takes us to our scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves in the second chapter of the Epistle of James, the first thirteen verses. The topic James is addressing is favoritism. Webster defines favoritism as, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another. Its synonyms include inequality, unfairness, discrimination, positive discrimination, and reverse discrimination. In the text it is the rich who are given favorable treatment. The rich have always received favorable treatment. That is why any American citizen can get a Corina virus vaccine for free. That is why less than 1% of Haitians have been vaccinated. The rich have always received favorable treatment. James is telling his scattered congregation favoritism will not be tolerated because God does not tolerate favoritism. It is as true today as it was in James’s time. The problem is our churches practice favoritism on a regular basis. Can I be honest with you?

I am innocent in many ways, so maybe I have missed it. I have never had a new individual, or a group join the church who felt entitled. It is my experience it is the established church membership who feel entitled. You can call it reverse-favoritism. Some long-term members feel entitle because they have quatres’ rights. They have seen preachers come and go. They have seen other members come and go. They have endured it all, so they feel entitled. They are the true members because of longevity. Could I be talking to you? Some talented members feel entitle. They have a special gift to offer the church and they believe the church cannot exist without them. You find it in various corners of the church. At first, we say we could not have done it without you and at some point, they begin to believe it. Could I be talking to you? Some generous church members feel entitled. I am not talking about money. They are generous with their time, so they believe they deserve to get what they want. Could I be talking to you? Many spend more time in this church building than me. I work from home because I get nothing done here. It is my experience newcomers are not the problem. They problem of favoritism comes from the established congregation. However, that does not mean the scripture does not speak to us. Favoritism is a danger to any church. The most effective churches are united. The least effective churches are divided. Do you think we are a united church, or do you think we are a divided church? James 2:1 says, My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”

The Covenant Life Church in Tampa, Florida is co-pastored by two men, Justin Perry and Drew Tucker. They planted the church in 2015 and have been extremely successful. It is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. They write a regular blog. One of their blogs is called Reasons Why God Hates Favoritism. These are the reasons:

  1. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character. God loves everyone. God loves the rich and the poor. God loves the educated and the uneducated. God loves both men and women. God loves everyone regardless of race. God loves liberals and conservative. God loves Americans and Non-Americans. God loves everyone equally, so God hates favoritism. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character.
  • God hates favoritism because God alone is the judge. When we practice favoritism, we become the judge and most of our judgements are based on superficial appearance. Our judgements are based on ignorance, not wisdom. God hates favoritism because God alone is the judge.
  • Favoritism damages the church’s witness. The secular world loves to tell ugly church stories. They love to tell those stories because they want to tell the world we are not insincere. The secular world wants the church to fail. People are must more comfortable telling critical church stories than they are affirming church stories. Favoritism damages the church’s witness.

James 2:9 says it clearly, favoritism is a sin. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” How much sinning have you done within the life of this church? When you look at someone else do you see how different they are from you, or do you see what you have in common? God sees what we have in common. Humans see how we are different and fair too often evaluate that person based on ignorance.

History tells that Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. When he was tried for his war crimes at Nuremburg, Yehiel Dinur (1909-2001), who had survived Auschwitz, faced Eichmann for the first time since leaving the concentration camp. When he saw Eichmann, Dinur sobbed and fainted.

Years later, Mike Wallace (1918-2012) of 60 Minutes asked Dinur what happened: Was he overcome by hatred or fear or horrid memories? Dinur’s answer is stunning. He said he suddenly realized that Eichmann was not some God-like authority in a military uniform who sent thousands to their deaths. He was just an ordinary man. And then, said Dinur, “I was afraid about myself… I saw that I can do this. I am exactly like he.” Do you get the point? We are more like others than we care to admit.

Several weeks ago, Kathryn and I were in Washington DC. I love visiting Washington because it is full of energy. This trip was no different. We arrived just hours after a ten-inch snowstorm fell. The capitol was beautiful, but it was partially closed. The various museums were closed or opened late to compensate for the snow. When we arrived at the National Art Gallery, it was closed. We had to wait about an hour until it opened. It really was not an issue. We found a Starbucks for a cup of coffee. Everyone there was in a festive mood. They found the snow fun. The man in front of us in line was obviously homeless. There is no shortage of homeless in Washington DC. He wore an old coat with a Washington Redskins towel around his waist. His feet and legs were bare except for a pair of flip-flops. Did you hear what I said? His feet and legs were bare except for a pair of flip-flops. There was ten inches of snow on the ground. When he went to buy his coffee, he was $1.12 short. He debated with the barista for a few minutes, but then he surrendered and walked off to the side empty handed. When I walked up to buy my coffee, I offered to buy the bare footed man a cup. The barista responded, “It is nice of you, but he will be fine. He is a regular. His name is Jake and I bought him a cup earlier. He has money. He just doesn’t want to spend it.” I thought about Jake the rest of the day. I was frustrated with him because no one should be homeless in America. If you cannot make it in the United States of America, then you cannot make it anywhere. I thought about going back to Jake and tell him to get a job. Every business is looking for workers.

I thought about Jake the rest of that day and I thought about Jake when I went to bed that night. Jake and I were both customers at Starbucks, but we were living in two different worlds. Jake was homeless and barefooted on a cold snowy day. I was employed and warm. I will be the first to admit it. I have a good life. I was born into a stable Christian home. My parents made sure I got a good education. I found a job that did not just pay the bills but filled me with passion. My success in life was easy because all I needed to do was take advantage of the opportunity laid in front of me. I did not know Jake’s story. Perhaps, he made countless mistakes. Perhaps, he missed his opportunity. Perhaps, he had no opportunities. Then it hit me. What if I would have born into Jake’s life? I may have been standing at a Starbuck’s in Washington DC on a snowy day wearing flip-flops with a Pittsburgh Steeler towel around my waste. (No, it would not be that bad. I would wear a Cleveland Brown towel.) From my warm bed I discovered was not much different from Jake. I was not much different from a homeless man in Washington DC, and either are you. However, this is the point.

We are all the same. Your longevity does not matter. Your natural gifts do not matter. Your generosity does not matter. In the life of the church, the only thing that matters is your spiritual state. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. God’s expectation. It has been said: Entitlement is a delusion built on self-centeredness and laziness. How self-centered are you? How lazy are you? How entitled are you?

Real Christians Persevere

Today, we are looking at the first four verses of the Epistle of James.  In verse one we are told James is writing to the twelve scattered tribes among the nations. Who were these people? It is not as mysterious as it sounds. The answer is simple. They were members of the early church, who left Jerusalem. They didn’t leave the Golden City because they wanted to go. They left the Golden City because they had to go. You remember the story. After the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), the rules changed. Their safety was no longer guaranteed. Their greatest fear was to end up like Stephen, dead! Everyone dreams of the perfection of heaven, but no one is in a hurry to go. They left for their own safety. Now let me state the obvious. This was not a time of advanced communication. There were no cell phones, text messages, or e-mails. When you left, you were gone. James didn’t know what was happening to his people, so he expects the worst. That is why the first topic he addresses is trials. If they were going to remain in the faith, then they had to persevere.

The world has changed a great deal in 2,000 years. In some ways, we have made some great advances. The advancement of medical knowledge and practice is impressive in the past 100 years. That is why people are living longer all the time. The advancement of communication is impressive over the past 100 years. E-mail and Skype have made our world very small. The advancement of transportation in the past 100 years is impressive. We fly commercial airliners without much thought. In certain ways, the world has changed a great deal in the past 2,000 years. However, in other ways, our world has remained the same in 2,000 years.

Two thousand years ago, being a follower of Jesus Christ meant you were in the minority. The percentage of true believers was very small. They were a minority who were not welcomed by their world. Guess what? Two thousand years later, being a follower of Jesus Christ means you are still in the minority. I am not talking about being a church member. I am talking about being a true disciple of Jesus Christ. I am talking about having a relationship with Jesus that is altering the way you live. It is altering the way you spend your time. It is altering the way you spend your money. It is altering your personal opinions. However, it is also altering the way that other people look at you and relate to you. If Jesus Christ really is altering your life, then you truly are in the minority. You know it is true. The majority is always trying to tell the minority to compromise this relationship with Jesus and conform to what the rest of the world is doing.

Verse four is vital to your spiritual development. It says, Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.”  James is not talking about the secondary issues in the life of the church. He is not talking about a certain style of worship. He is not talking about locking the doors after a church function or washing the dishes in the kitchen. James is talking about not compromising vital pieces of the Christian faith, our core values. There are many that could be mentioned, but I will only mention three. If you are ready to begin, say, “Amen!”

First, never compromise Jesus! This letter is not just written to anyone. It is written to that small group of people who really believed. Their names and stories differed, but somewhere in their lives they experienced Jesus. The question is not, how did you come to know Jesus? The question is, have you experienced Jesus? Once you experience Jesus, everything changes. Jesus wasn’t just a good man. Jesus wasn’t just a wise man or a role model. Jesus wasn’t just an interesting man. Jesus was not just a motivational speaker. Jesus was the incarnation of God, who was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. He is our only hope of salvation. How could you ever compromise Jesus?And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Never compromise Jesus!

The Bible

Second, never compromise the Bible! One of my favorite Bible stories comes from the eighth chapter of Acts. You know the story. We have looked at it in the past. The main character is Philip. He was directed by an angel to go to the road that runs between Gaza and Jerusalem. Philip does what he is told and meets a foreigner. The scriptures identify him as an Ethiopian eunuch. His life is complex for a variety of reasons. When Philip meets him, he is trying to untangle the mess. With nowhere else to go, he is reading the scriptures. The problem is, he didn’t understand what he was reading. Does anyone here have a hard time understanding the Bible? The good news is, Philip helped him understand what he was reading. He was reading from the suffering servant passage, Isaiah 53. It is a chapter about Jesus.

As a matter of fact, every word in the Bible is about Jesus. The Old Testament is about everything that happened before Jesus’ birth. The Gospels are about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The book of Acts is about the Holy Spirit and the creation of Jesus’ bride, the church. The rest of the Bible is filled with testimonies about the difference that Jesus made in individual lives. Revelation is about how Jesus wins in the end. Second, we will never compromise the Bible because it is all about Jesus, our Lord and Savior. If you will never compromise the Bible, say, “Amen!” First, never compromise Jesus! Second, never compromise the Bible.

The Church

Third, never compromise the church! Job number one in every church is the resurrection of Jesus. Administrative structure really doesn’t matter. The number of small groups you have really doesn’t matter. The denominational name on the sign doesn’t really matter. What really matters? The only thing that really matters in the life of the church is the resurrection of Jesus. On the day we stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus, we will stop being the church that God intended. For this reason, we will never compromise the church.

It is hard to believe that I began serving in the United Methodist Church nearly 35 years ago. Time goes so quickly. When I was going through the ordination process, I was required to turn in a certain amount of paperwork. One of the papers I wrote was on Ecclesiology, the study of the church. I learned something while I was writing that paper that I have never forgotten. Paul and Peter viewed the church in two different ways. Paul believed the church was visible. In other words, he believed everyone who is present today was part of the true church. Peter believed the church is invisible. He believed your attendance is only one sign that you are part of the true church. He believed that only God knows who makes up the true church. In other words, you can be a member of a church and not be part of the true church. Can be in the true church and not be a church member. The faith was never meant to be lived out in isolation. I am not sure you I believe, Peter is correct. What do you believe? Let me go a few more steps down that road.

I believe man-made denominations mean very little to God. The only thing that really matters is your belief in the resurrection. That is Biblical. Romans 10:9 says, “… if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Many believe that verse is the very first creed in the church. Your belief and witness of the resurrection is everything. That is why I have very little problem crossing denominational lines. Presbyterians and Lutherans believe in the resurrection. Those fun non-denominational and Pentecostal churches believe in the resurrection. The Roman and Byzantine Catholic Churches believe in the resurrection. The Orthodox Church believes in the resurrection. The traditions of all these churches are different. I am not saying I accept all their practices and beliefs. I don’t accept everything about the United Methodist Church. However, I do believe in the resurrection, and I am open to any group that believes in the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe the devil is in the details? Maybe instead of promoting our differences, we should promote what we have in common, the resurrection of Jesus! People promote differences. God promotes what we have in common. If you will never compromise the church, say, “Amen!” First, never compromise Jesus! Second, never compromise the Bible! Third, never compromise the church! Let me end with this story.

This is a good story on this Martin Luther King Day weekend. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a British Politian. He was the one who ended the slave trade in that country. It was hard work. He was often discouraged. It was his practice to read the Bible during those dark days. On one such night, he began to leaf through it. A small piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. It was a letter written by John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the great Methodist movement, shortly before his death. This is what that letter said:

Unless the divine power has raised you up… I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that (abominable practice of slavery), which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might.

John Wesley was reminding William Wilberforce of the same thing that James is reminding us. We are only soldiers in a great spiritual battle.It is God, Himself, who goes ahead of us. It is God, Himself, who will claim the final victory. The only thing we are required to do is persevere. If you are going to be a real Christian, then you must persevere.

Let there be no doubt about it. We are in the middle of a great spiritual battle. We are nothing more than soldiers. In our lives, we will experience both victory and defeat. However, in the end, God will win, and we will reap the benefits. All we are asked to do is persevere. We will never give up on Jesus. He is our only hope of salvation. We will never give up on the Bible. It is the inspired word of God. It is all about Jesus. We will never give up the church. The true church can’t stop talking about Jesus. The church is the bride of Christ. Who will tell the world about our risen Savior if the church fails? Scottish naturalist Walter Elliot (1842-1928) once said, Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.  Never give up, persevere! And all of God people said, “Amen!”

Accepted

In the second chapter of Matthew, verses 1 through 12, we find the story of the Magi. The Bible says it happened after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea. So, Jesus was born five and a half miles south of Jerusalem. Matthew goes on to pinpoint the date. It was when King Herod sat on the throne. He sat on the throne for thirty-three years, from 37 – 4 B.C. He was appointed to his position by the Roman Senate. Over two thousand years later, he is still remembered for being ruthless and insecure. His insecurity led him to murder many in his family: his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and uncles. In our reading for today, we learn his murderous ways extended beyond the family. You know what the Bible says.

One day, Magi, Gentile astrologers from Persia or southern Arabia, (both east of Palestine), came to visit Herod. They had been studying the stars and had discovered that God was doing something new. A baby had been born, who was called King of the Jews. They assumed the King of the Jews would be born in the palace. They assumed wrong. The infamous insecure King Herod is thrown into a tirade. His insecurity fuels the loss of more human life. The story does not have a happy ending. It pains me to say it. Using the information received from the Magi about this divine birth, he orders the death of all baby boys under the age of two. However, in the end, the Magi find the baby, now a toddler. (Jesus could have been two years old.)

I have preached this story for years, but it is only recently I discovered something new. It is something I have overlooked my entire life. It is not that Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn. It is not that they were Magi, not kings. It is not the meaning behind the gifts. My new insight was that the gifts were accepted. It is hard to see thousands of years later. Joseph and Mary received the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Think about it for moment. When you accept a gift, you are accepting the gift giver. Joseph and Mary accepted the Magi’s gifts, so they were accepting the Magi themselves. It does not sound so earthshaking now, but it was then. This Jewish couple accepted this group of three Gentiles. That rarely, if ever, happened. At the time of this story, accepting the Magi was, and is, a big deal. Just think about it for a moment.

From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, God had an exclusive relationship with the Jews. That covers thousands of years. The Hebrew nation took pride in the fact that they were God’s Chosen People. The purity of their race was important to them. They took pride in their heritage, and they disdained for everyone else. Either you were a Jew, or you were not. That is why genealogies were important to them. In the previous chapter, Matthew proves to the readers, Jews, that Jesus was 100% Jewish. That is why the Jews hated the Samaritans. They were almost Jewish, not good enough. Who were the Samaritans? They were the descendants of former Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles during the exile. Through Jewish eyes, they were half-breeds and hated for polluting the race. The purity of the race is extremely important to the Jews. That is what makes this story so amazing. This Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary, accept these Gentiles, the Magi. Not only do they accept them, but they accept their gifts. Can I ask you a question? When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? In the Bible lesson for today, the issue is racism. We understand racism because sadly, it is still part of our world.

I have never experienced the magic of Pittsburgh. Some people see it as a magical place. Some believe, heaven looks a great deal like Pittsburgh. I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few nice streets crowded in between the rivers and the hills. Can I confess something to you? I can never drive into Pittsburgh and not get lost. I am always going the wrong way on a one-way street. It is my experience that modern GPS is useless in Pittsburgh.

Several years ago, I was going to visit someone in one of the hospitals in Pittsburgh. Kathryn came along for company. Not to my surprise, we got lost. I break the stereotype and ask for directions when I get lost. Kathryn was driving, so I jumped out of the car. The closest place to ask for directions was a corner bar. When I walked in the place, it went silent. I do not want to sound racist, but the place went silent because I was the only person of non-color in the bar. I asked the first person I saw for directions. He was helpful. He pulled out a napkin that sat under his frosted beer mug and wrote down some directions. When I walked out, everyone started laughing. Racism is at the heart of that story and racism is at the heart of our Bible story. However, racism is not the only source of the problem. There are many reasons why we don’t accept others. Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?

Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding at the Butler Museum of American Art in downtown Youngstown. To be more exact the wedding took place in the new Butler North, who was the former First Christian Church. The congregation had left, and the Holy Spirit went with them. The ceremony was stiff with canned music. My plan was to leave after the benediction, but the father of the bride asked me to stay and say at the reception in the art gallery. I was more than glad to stay, but I had stay about two hours. I called Kathryn and she agreed to meet me at the reception. However, that meant for two hours, I was on my own. I spent most of the time looking at the pieces of art. I tried to talk to people, but no one wanted to talk to me. I was identified as the minister, and no one wants to talk to the minister. I was alone in a crowd. I was not accepted. Have you ever been excluded because of your job? Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? You know it is true. Sometimes, we exclude ourselves because we do not feel like we belong.

Personally, I find New Year’s Eve to be depressing, after the great day of Christmas. We always go somewhere to escape the festivities of New Year’s. One year, we went to Annapolis. It was a great trip. We toured the Naval Academy and visited some historic sites. Annapolis was the Capitol of the United States for the first eight months after the Revolution. From Annapolis it moved to Trenton, New Jersey. The last day of our trip we went into Baltimore and toured the B & O Railroad Museum.

The last thing we did was go to a mansion called Evergreen. It was the home of one the B & O CEO’s. The building was impressive, filled with priceless art and collectibles. Our guide tried to impress us with all the pieces. Everyone was impressed, except for one person in the group, me! I just didn’t appreciate the various pieces. Don’t get me wrong. I have been exposed to some of the finest things in life. I have heard some of the finest music ever composed performed by some of the world’s finest orchestras. I have seen masterpieces in some of the finest art galleries in the world. The problem is not a lack of exposure, it is a lack of appreciation. Everyone on our tour appreciated what they were experiencing, except me. Once again, I was alone in a crowd. The guide and the group did nothing wrong. The problem wasn’t them. It was me. I didn’t feel like I belonged. By the end of the tour, people were sharing what they enjoyed the most in the house. Do you know what I enjoyed most? It was a photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941). I really admired his large mustache. It was obvious. I just didn’t fit in with the rest of the group. It is entirely possible to exclude yourself. Let me ask you the question one more time: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?

That is what makes this morning’s story so incredible. It is a story of acceptance. A Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary accepted a group of Gentiles. They aren’t just accepting them. They are emotionally embracing them by accepting their gifts. Here is the Good News for today: You are accepted too. Jesus didn’t just come to maintain God’s special relationship with the Jews. Jesus came so everyone can have a relationship with God. Jesus came so God can have a relationship with you. Never forget it. God loves you so much, he wants to spend eternity with you! Brian Tracy (born 1944) said it best, “The greatest gift that you can give someone is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.”

Now Is the Time

On February 24, 1584, Pope Gregory VIII (1105-1187) signed a papal decree that the Christian world would accept the new Gregorian calendar. The motivation behind the Gregorian calendar was the Julian calendar, which assumes that the earth takes 365.25 days for the earth to circle around the sun. The days are divided into twelve months and an extra day is added every four years. According to the Gregorian calendar the new year begins on the first day of January.

Today, the new year is celebrated around the world. Can you name any other holiday that the world, in its entirety, is embraced more than New Years? Did you know Sydney, Australia celebrates the New Year by exploding 80,000 fireworks for an estimated crowd of 1.5 million at the stroke of midnight? In Valparaiso, Chile two million come to see fireworks explode. In England, everyone gathers at the London Eye to watch fireworks as Big Ben strikes midnight. In New York City, a crystal ball is dropped in a one-minute countdown in Times Square. Edinburgh, Scotland hosts the world’s largest Hogmanay events to celebrate the New Year. The event lasts four days. In Rio de Janeiro two million people gather on the famous Copacabana Beach to watch a fifteen-minute fireworks display. Finally, in Central America New Year’s events are scheduled throughout the entire month of January.

Can I ask you a simple question? Why do so many people get excited about New Years? The world does not celebrate any other day on the calendar like New Year’s Day. Why January 1? Just think about it. There is nothing special about March 1. We barely notice it. No one cares about August 1. The world does not notice the coming of November 1. December 1 is lost in the Christmas season. What is that makes January 1 so special? Why do so many people get excited about a New Year? If you surveyed the worldwide crowds then you would discover there are several reasons why people celebrate the New Year.

Some celebrate the New Year because they will celebrate anything. This group is always ready to party. Are you in this group? They are the same people who pretend to be Irish and celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. They are the same people who pretend to have Mexican roots and celebrate Cinco De Mayo. For this group any reason is a good reason to party, so why not celebrate New Year’s Day?

Some celebrate the New Year because they are glad to see the old year pass. Can anyone here tell me that you are sad to see 2021 go? For many, it was a difficult year. I am in that group. You will always remember 2021 as the year you did not have a job. You will remember 2021 as the year you lost a loved one. Or maybe it will be the year that you discovered that you had cancer or some other health issue. Every year is not a happy year. 2021 was the year the pandemic continued and frustrated our good lives. Some years are a mix of the very best and the very worst. 2021 was the year my daughter got married and the year I had major surgery. How will you remember 2021?

Some celebrate the New Year because it symbolizes a brand-new start. Does anyone here feel like you need a brand-new start? I used to have a paper calendar. It was exciting. There is just something about a brand-new calendar. Your old calendar is faded and warn but your new calendar is clear and crisp. Each day is empty and filled with possibilities. What do you want to do better in 2022? What area of your life do you want to improve? That is why people make New Year’s resolutions. Has anyone made a resolution to mend a broken relationship? Has anyone here made a resolution to watch less television and read more? Has anyone here made a resolution to eat less or exercise more? Now is the time to improve yourself! There is no better time to improve yourself then right now.Let us look at this morning’s scripture lesson.

We are instructed today from the first nine verses from third chapter of Ecclesiastes, the first nine verses. It written by King Solomon. He was always be remembered as a man of wisdom. Some have questioned that because he had 700 wives. (One is enough for me!) The reading for today reminds us that life should be lived in balance. There is no way you could miss the pattern of these verses. There is a time for this and a time for that. If you look at the text you discover that the this’s and the that’s are linked. Nothing should be done all the time. Nothing should be eliminated all the time. Life is meant to be lived in a certain balance. For example, no one should work 24/7. On the other hand, no one should vacation 24/7. The wise one, Solomon tells us life must be lived in balance. Are you living your life in balance?

Is your spiritual life in balance? In Matthew 4:4, Jesus quotes, Deuteronomy 8:3. It says, Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Our world has a surplus of people who are living spiritually out of balance. There is a time to do the things of this world and a time to do the things of God. How much time to you spend doing secular things? (Working, paying bills, cleaning the house) How much time do you spend with God? (Worship, devotion, prayer) Remember what I said in the opening words. King Solomon believed mankind is basically blind to God’s meaning for man’s existence. We spend our days chasing after things that really don’t matter. How many meaningless things are going to fill your calendar in 2022? How much time are you going to give God this year?

This is the good news for today. Now is the time. There is no better time to improve yourself then right now. Now is the time to break your old secular patterns and draw near to God. Today, my goal is to help you live more balanced lives, spiritually. I am going to do that by reminding you of one thing and challenge you to do something else. There is a time for the things of this world and there is a time for God.

First, if you want to live a balanced spiritual life then I want to remind you that you are a child of God. That is easy to forget in our world. We are so busy running around; we are so busy dealing with life’s problems and challenges. Never forget, you belong to God. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The purpose of life is to glorify God.” In Romans 14:8 Paul says, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Never forget that you are a child of God. Is the way that you live bringing glory to God?

On September 3, 1967, the old television game show What’s My Line? went off the air. It had been a staple on CBS for seventeen years, airing 867 episodes. Do you remember What’ s My Line? If you do then you have been watching television for fifty-five years! Do you remember how the game was played? What’s My Line was a guessing game. The panel would ask the guest ten yes and no questions. They were trying to discover their vocation. At the end of the questions the panelists would guess what the guest did for a living. In seventeen years, the country discovered there were many odd vocations and many people who did not stereotypically look like their vocation. So let me ask you the question.

So, what is your line? You can earn money in many ways. You may be a teacher, preacher, librarian, engineer, secretary, or a person of business. Those are ways to earn money, but they are not your primary purpose in life. Your job is just a part that you play in this world. It is how you pay the bills. However, what you really are is a child of God. If you are going to live a balanced life, both secularly and spiritually, then never forget your true purpose, to glorify God. Does your life bring glory to God? Or do you have some work to do?

Second, if you want to live a balanced spiritual life then I challenge you to develop a plan to help you grow spiritually. In other words, I want you to schedule God into your life. I hope you make God a real priority in your life. There should be a time for service and a time and a time for the spiritual disciplines. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) once said, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan?” Now is the time. What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2022?

Years ago, we looked at the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Do you remember his story? He went back to the city of Jerusalem. The city at that point in history laid in ruins. Nehemiah dreamed of building a wall around the city so he could rebuild it. Along the way we learned that he was both a visionary and a leader. We learned he was detail oriented. Do you remember? He had a plan. He knew the length of the completed wall. He knew the height of the completed wall. He knew the thickness of the completed wall. Based on those facts he knew what he needed to complete the wall. Having a plan does mean you don’t trust God. Having a plan simply means you going to do your best for God.

What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2022? Maybe one of the reasons you aren’t growing in the faith is that you don’t have a plan? Now is the time to plan. How much time are you planning on giving God this year? Are you going to read the Bible more? Are you going to pray more this year? Are you going to mediate more this year? Have you scheduled God into your life, or doesn’t God fit into your plans for this year? What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2022? Let me end with the random facts.

Did you know the first electric light was so dim that a candle was needed to see its socket? Did you know the first steamboat took 32 hours to chug its way from New York to Albany, a distance of 150 miles? Did you know Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first airplane flight lasted only 12 seconds? Did you know the first automobiles traveled 2 to 4 miles per hour and broke down often? Carriages would pass them with their passengers shouting, “Get a horse!” What do those stories teach us? How you begin really doesn’t matter. What matters more is how you end.

How are going to end 2022? Are you going to be closer to God then you are at this moment? The great wise one, Solomon, said mankind is basically blind to God’s meaning for man’s existence. We spend our days chasing after things that really don’t matter. Life is meant to be lived in perfect balance! Is your life in perfect balance between the secular and the spiritual? Or do you have some work to do. Now is the time to begin.

What Day Is It?

When we last left Scrooge, he was trying to recover from his three visitors. There was the Ghost of Christmas Past, who came at 1:00. She showed him some wonderful Christmas memories and others that weren’t so great. There was the Ghost of Christmas Present, who came at 2:00. He showed him both the poverty that existed in his world, and the fun he was missing. There was the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future, who came without warning. He reminded Scrooge of his mortality. No one likes to hear that they are terminal from birth.

Our scene for this evening begins with sunshine. It is a new day. You remember the scene. Scrooge has endured his three visitors and promises to change. The transformation is complete! With newly discovered energy, he jumps out of bed and begins to dance around. The church bells begin to chime when Scrooge has a horrible thought. Maybe the work of the ghosts took longer than one day? Maybe he missed Christmas? He runs to his window and opens it. He looks down and discovers a small boy. He yells at him and asks the question for this evening, “What day is it?” The boy repeats the question, then he answers it. “What day is it? Why, it is Christmas day!” Scrooge is thrilled with the boy’s response. He hasn’t missed it. He begins to make plans to get the most out of that Christmas, and I hope you have done the same. Can I ask you a question?

What plans have you made for Christmas? What are you going to do to get the most out of this Christmas? Has anyone here decorated their home for Christmas? Your tree came out of the woods and makes the whole house smell like pine. Or your tree came out of the attic, but it won’t shed a single needle. Is anyone here planning on spending the day with loved ones? Some have traveled a long way to spend the day with you, others have walked down the street. The distance doesn’t matter, their attendance does. Is anyone here planning on exchanging gifts for Christmas? You bought just the right present for just the right person, and you cannot wait for them to open it. Maybe you have spotted an extra-large gift under the tree with your name on it. You can’t wait to open it. I don’t have to go on. You know it is true. You are just like Scrooge! You know that the great day of Christmas is here, and you are trying to get the most out of this Christmas. Did you know the National Retail Federation expected the average American to spend $998 on Christmas this year? The average American will spend $850 on presents alone. However, those of us who comprise the church know that Christmas is more than a giant birthday party.

Christmas is deeper and more profound. Christmas is more than a massive birthday party. Christmas is about the incarnation of God. The Gospel of John says, “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (1:14) In other words, God left the perfection of heaven and took a human form to become one of us. We say we love our dogs, but would we trade places with them. Would we get on our knees and hands and eat of their food bowl? Would we get on our knees and hands and lap water from the bowl? That is what God did. That is what makes Christmas so special. The church celebrates Christmas annually for three reasons. Ponder them with me.

Christmas is a day to celebrate the heart of God! The God of the universe is in love with us! The God of the universe is in love with you. He could have ordered us to love him. He could have impressed us with his power. However, those ways have limitations. Instead, God entered this world to share our interests and concerns, and to win our hearts.

Did you know the disease we call leprosy is still active in our world today? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1,000 people die each year from leprosy in the Western Hemisphere. However, in most cases, it is treatable. That was not the case during the time of Father Damien (1840-1889). He was a Roman Catholic priest, who was born in Belgium. He spent most of his adult life in the mission fields. He spent the last sixteen years of his life on Hawaiian island, serving a leper colony. He learned to speak their language.  He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone.  He organized schools, bands, and choirs.  He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter.  He built two thousand coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity.  Slowly, it was said, the leper colony became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. He got close.  For this the people loved him. Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers.” Now he was not just helping them.  Now he was one of them.  From this day forward he was not just on their island; he was in their skin.  First, he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died.

That is the story of Christmas! The incarnation reveals the heart of God. Jesus did not just come into the world to help us. Jesus, God came into the world to be one of us. He came into the world to die with us.The incarnation reveals God’s heart. The incarnation reveals our great human need.

In 1963, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was charged with trying to sabotage his nation’s government. He went against his nation’s apartheid government, which treated each race differently. He wanted South Africa to have a democratic government, which treated all races the same. He was found guilty and was sent to prison. He sat in that prison for the next twenty-seven years. When he was released in 1990, he only spoke of one thing, forgiveness. In time, he would become president of his country and had an international audience. He spoke of forgiveness time and time again. Mandela said, “Forgiveness is part of God’s plan.” Nelson Mandela knew it. Mankind’s greatest need is for forgiveness.

Christmas is a day to admit mankind’s greatest need, forgiveness. In the life of the church there is nothing, there is no one, more important than Jesus. He is the key to happiness both in this world and in heaven itself. It is impossible to separate the baby in the nativity from the Savior on the cross thirty-three years later. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He died so we could live. The Incarnation reveals our greatest human need, forgiveness. The incarnation reveals God’s heart and our greatest human need. The incarnation also reveals the mystery of God’s ways.

The Hebrew world waited for generations for the coming of the Messiah. They knew he was going to be something special! They dreamed of his greatness, but they almost missed him because he was quite common. The story of the nativity is filled with common people. The shepherds were the first to hear about the birth of Jesus. Who were they? They were nobodies. In fact, they were rejected by the orthodox leaders for not keeping the law. Mary and Joseph were really nothing special. They were just another poor couple having a baby. Aren’t the poor always having another baby? Two years later, when the Magi finally arrive, they go to the palace because they are looking for something special. Who looks for something special in the barn? Think about this for a moment. God trusted common people with his divine plan, and He still does.

This is my question for you. What are you going to do for God with the rest of your life?  I know that is an intimidating question. I know it raises your insecurities. You feel like you are nothing special, which makes you perfect for God’s service. Christmas is a day to ponder God’s mysterious ways. Never forget, God has a purpose for your life.I end with this story. I have told it in the past because it is one of my favorites.

One of the great places in the world is the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It is the site of the papal conclave, the process how a new pope is elected. The fame of the Sistine Chapel lies mainly in the frescoes which decorate the interior, and more particularly the Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. He began the project in 1508 and completed it four years later. Five hundred years later everyone agrees, it is a masterpiece. Years ago, Kathryn and I were fortunate to visit the Sistine Chapel. We were not alone. We were just two in a large group of tourists. The crowd made it impossible to study all the details. It was frustrating. The tour guide led us through quickly. If you ever get a chance to visit the Sistine Chapel, do it.

A good friend of mine visited the Sistine Chapel years ago too. Bill Johnson was young and in the navy. You remember Bill. He worked with me for five years. No one has a bigger heart than Bill. He was on leave in Italy, so he and a group of friends went to the Sistine Chapel. Like my experience, he was in a large group when they were herded into the chapel. Bill was uncomfortable in the crowd and was unsure of his location. He did not want to step on anyone, so he kept his head down. When they exited the chapel, everyone began to talk about the beautiful ceiling. It was only then that Bill discovered his mistake. He was standing in the middle of the Sistine Chapel and never looked up to see the famous ceiling. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he missed it. I hope you do not miss it.

I hope that is not your story. Scrooge feared he missed Christmas. I hope you do not miss Christmas. It has been a wonderful scene. There has been the colored lights and the holiday decorations. There have been the cards and gifts. There is one at home waiting for you. There has been special music and parties. It has been fantastic, but do not miss the real meaning of Christmas. Those of us who comprise the church know the true meaning of Christmas. It is about the Incarnation. David Jeremiah (born 1941) once said, “All the presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.” What day is it? It is Christmas day!

The Ghost of Christmas Future

When we last left Scrooge, he was leaving the ghost of Christmas present. His transformation was beginning. He is beginning to enjoy Christmas. He enjoyed the love in the Cratchit home. He enjoyed the fun at his family dinner. He even enjoyed the sacredness of Christmas worship. He enjoyed it all and he did not want to leave. The problem is he had to leave and face the last of his three ghosts, the ghost of Christmases yet to come or the ghost of Christmas future.

Our scene for this morning features that voiceless faceless phantom. The only thing Scrooge sees is a large black robe with extruding boney fingers. Those lifeless fingers show Scrooge what he must see. He must look at the stock exchanged where he labored daily. He must look at the grieving Cratchit home, where Tiny Tim has passed. He must look at the grave where his own name edged in stone. He looked at it all and he does not like what he saw. He had changed! What he saw as valuable in this world, means nothing. What he saw as pointless, suddenly had meaning. With this new insight, he promises to live the rest of his life differently. How would you live your life differently if you knew your future? Today, we look at the future too. We see how Jesus would change the world.

We find ourselves today in the second chapter of Luke, verses 21-40. We hear about two different events. The first event came when Jesus was eight days old. For it was on that day that Jesus was formally named and circumcised. (v.21) Never forget, he was Jewish. They followed the various laws. The second came when he was forty days old. For it was on that day that the Old Testament law, Leviticus 12:2-8, demanded that Mary go to the temple. All women who had given birth to a boy had to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice of purification. She sacrificed two doves, because that is what the poorest gave. (vss. 22-24) The sacrifice was made as scripted. The only thing that makes this story unique are the characters they meet at the temple. I have said it a million times. The best things that happen in church are not found in the bulletin.

The two people mentioned in this story play the part of the ghost of Christmas future. They were not preoccupied with the baby Jesus. They were more interested in his future. They were more interested in the things that Jesus would do with his life. They knew that Jesus would play a vital role in God’s plan of salvation for the world. They praised God on that day for two different reasons. It is those reasons I want to look at this morning.

The first-person Mary and Joseph encountered was Simeon. He is described as righteous and devout. He had been waiting for years for the consolation of Israel. What does that mean? It means that he had been waiting for years for comfort. Annually, he sat at the Seder and remembered the great things that God had done for them. It was God who sent the plagues. It was God who parted the sea. It was God who provided for his people in the wilderness. God did some mighty things for them but that seemed like ancient history. God hadn’t done anything for them in quite a while. Those great days with God had been replaced by foreign domination. There must have been days when they felt like they were forgotten. Have you ever felt forgotten by God? When Simeon looked into the face of Jesus he was comforted because he knew God was still with them. When we look into the face of Jesus, we are comforted too. Jesus reminds us that God is still with us!

In 2009, Alan Gross (born 1949) went to Cuba to help set up internet access from a small Jewish community on that island nation. The Cuban government saw him as a threat and arrested him. After five years in a Cuban prison, he was released. I cannot imagine what life is like in a Cuban prison. He lost 100 pounds during his years of incarceration. The only thing that kept him going were his weekly phone calls home. They reminded him that he was not forgotten. Christmas reminds us we are not forgotten!

The second person Mary and Joseph encountered was Anna. She is described as an old prophetess. It was never difficult to find her because she was always in the temple. She had been there since the death of her husband. She knew there was something special about Jesus and spoke about the redemption of Israel. What does that mean? A large part of redemption is forgiveness. When Anna looked into the face of the infant Jesus, she knew that forgiveness was possible. After all, thirty-three years later, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of our world so we can experience forgiveness.

On October 2, 2006, Charles C. Roberts (1973-2006) walked into an Amish school with three guns. At first, there were 26 students. He permitted some to leave, leaving behind their classmates. It was at that moment that he began to fire. When silence returned, six people laid dead, including Roberts. Notes left behind revealed he was struggling with the loss of his infant daughter years earlier. The grieving Amish community did something completely unnatural. They forgave Roberts and began supporting his widow. They even offered her some financial help. Their ability to love did not come from this world, it came from God. Their ability to forgive changed the lives of countless people. Christmas reminds us forgiveness is possible! Let me end with this old preaching story.

Many years ago, there was a very wealthy man who shared a passion for art collecting with his son. They had priceless works by Picasso and Van Gogh adorning the walls of their family estate. As winter approached, war engulfed the nation, and the young man left to serve his country. After only a few short weeks, his father received a telegram. His son had died. Distraught and lonely, the old man faced the upcoming Christmas with anguish and sadness. The joy of the season had vanished with the death of his son. On Christmas morning, a knock on the door awakened the depressed old man. As he walked to the door, the masterpieces of art on the walls only reminded him that his son was not coming home. As he opened the door, he was greeted by a soldier with a large package in his hands who said, “I was a friend of your son. I was the one he was rescuing when he died. May I come in for a few moments? I have something to show you.” The soldier mentioned that he was an artist and then gave the old man the package. The paper gave way to reveal a portrait of the man’s son. Though the world would never consider it the work of a genius, the painting featured the young man’s face in striking detail. Overcome with emotion, the man hung the portrait over the fireplace, pushing aside millions of dollars-worth of art. His task completed, the old man sat in his chair and spent Christmas gazing at the gift he had been given. The painting of his son soon became his most prized possession, far eclipsing any interest in the pieces of art for which museums around the world clamored.

The following spring, the old man died. The art world waited with anticipation for the upcoming auction. According to the will of the old man, all the art works would be auctioned on Christmas Day, the day he had received the greatest gift. The day soon arrived and art collectors from around the world gathered to bid on some of the world’s most spectacular paintings. Dreams would be fulfilled that day. The auction began with a painting that was not on anyone’s museum wish list. It was the painting of the man’s son. The auctioneer asked for an opening bid, but the room was silent. “Who will open the bidding with $100?” No one spoke. Finally, someone said, “Who cares about that painting. It’s just a picture of his son. Let’s move on to the good stuff.” The auctioneer responded, “No, we have to sell this one first. Now, who will take the son?” Finally, a neighbor of the old man offered $10 dollars. “That’s all I have. I knew the boy, so I’d like to have it.” The auctioneer said, “Going once, going twice…gone.” The gavel fell. Cheers filled the room, and someone exclaimed, “Now we can bid on the real treasures!” The auctioneer looked at the room filled with people and announced that the auction was over. Everyone was stunned. Someone spoke up and said, “What do you mean, it’s over? We didn’t come here for a painting of someone’s son. There are millions of dollars’ worth of art here! What’s going on?” The auctioneer replied, “It’s very simple. According to the will of the Father, whoever takes the son…gets it all.”

It is the story of Christmas. Whoever gets the son, gets it all. You know it is true. If you have Jesus, then you have a constant friend in this world. There has never been a moment in your life when you are alone. Like Simeon, you have companionship. If you have Jesus, then you have forgiveness. Like Anna, you have salvation. David Jeremiah was right! He said, “All the presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ

The Ghost of Christmas Present

When we last left Scrooge, he was trying to recover from his time with the Ghost of Christmas Past. She reminded him of both the good and the bad. There was the Christmas he spent partying with old Fezziwig and the Christmas he was summoned home by his sister, Fanny. There was also the Christmas he spent at school alone. Like us, Scrooge’s Christmases were a mixed bag, filled with both the good and the bad. Sometimes Christmas is not merry.

It was now time for his next visitor, the Ghost of Christmas Present. Like past Christmases, there is both the good and the sad. Scrooge sees the dinner at his nephew’s Fred’s house. They are playing games and laughing at Uncle Ebenezer. There are the poor struggling to survive. For the first time, Scrooge saw the home of his office clerk, Bob Cratchit.  His home was simple at best, with a surplus of both love and hardship. Everyone is doing their best to survive and support one another. The apple of Bob’s eye is his crippled son, Tiny Tim. The boy has no future, but he does one thing no one else can. He pierces Scrooge’s heart. For the first time in a long time, Scrooge shows compassion. The problem is, Scrooge is not ready to act on that compassion. Is that why we find Scrooge so intriguing. We hate to admit it, but there is a little Scrooge inside of each one of us. We have compassion on the poor and the struggling, but we do next to nothing to relieve their suffering. That is why we marvel at the scripture lesson for today.

We are in the first chapter of Luke, verses 26-38. The angel Gabriel goes to Mary to tell her she has been selected by God for a special job. She is going to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. There is only one problem. She is unmarried, so pregnancy seems impossible. In other words, she is sexually innocent. You must admit, God is always thinking outside of the box. This child will not be conceived in the old-fashioned way. This child will be conceived in a miraculous way. The Holy Spirit himself will come upon her, and her child will be the son of God. She will name that child Jesus. The name Jesus means “God is salvation.” That is a good church story, but in the real world it is hard to believe. All you must do is walk in Mary’s shoes and the story gets very complex. We covered some of this material last week.

The scriptures tell us Mary lived in a town called Nazareth. It was a small town. In Mary’s day, it had a population of between one hundred and four hundred people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? You do not just know everyone. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Unlike our world, Mary’s world had high moral standards. We live in low moral times. She was a single pregnant woman. In our low morals time, we are supposed to be open minded about such matters. After all, these are modern times. In Mary’s time, she was shunned. That means her personal dreams and desires were gone. Her pregnancy did not just bring shame to her, it brought shame to her entire family. On the one hand, God’s selection of Mary was a wonderful thing. She would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. She will be praised by the generations to come. On the other hand, this unwanted pregnancy meant the death of her personal dreams and desires. She would be a joke to the people who knew her. All she really wanted was respect by this world. That is what makes this morning’s scripture lesson so incredible. Mary surrenders her personal dreams and desires to do God’s will. Luke 1:38 is significant. Mary is addressing the angel, Gabriel. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”  That leads us to an interesting question.

How open are you to God’s will for your life? C. S. Lewis said it for us all. He said, We’re not necessarily doubting that God’s will is the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Are you more like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was only concerned about himself? Are you more like the virgin Mary, who was open to God’s leading? If that makes you think, say, “Amen!” That leads us to three questions.

This is question number one: does your worldview reflect God’s will? Many consider David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind the greatest movie ever made. It is based on Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name. It was the only book she ever wrote. You know the story because the movie is on television periodically. The movie premiered in Atlanta in 1939. Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952), who played Mammy in the movie, became the first black actor to receive an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1940. However, she wasn’t invited to the world premiere because of the segregation laws in the Jim Crow south. Racism has been a big part of our country for a long time. I am afraid we haven’t made much progress.

Racism dominates the news. Do these names sound familiar?

          George Floyd

          Travon Martin

          Michael Brown

          Eric Garner

You know those names. Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin. Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman. Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson. Garner was strangled to death in Staten Island, New York. They are just four names in a sea of names that revolve around racism. I hate to say it, but you know it is true. Racial tension in America is high. The views that white America holds about those men and the views black America hold about those men are extremely different. This is the question.

Does your worldview reflect God’s will? 1 John 2:9 says, “Whoever says he is living in the light but hates his brother is still living in darkness.” Mankind sees how people are different, God sees what we have in common. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ! What do you see when you look at a stranger? Do you see how they are different from you? Do you look for what you have in common? In other words, are you more like Scrooge, who saw the problem and did nothing? Are you more like Mary, who surrendered to God’s will?

This is question number two: does your community spirit reflect God’s will? One of the great things this church does annually is the “giving tree”. You know the routine. You take a tag off the tree, which contains a gift suggestion. You are to return that gift with the tag and wrapping paper on a designated date, unwrapped! Last week, the tree was full of tags, but by next week all the tags will be gone. The tree will stand empty because this church will buy Christmas gifts for a stranger. Can I be honest with you? I like looking at all the gifts once they are all purchased. It is fun to see the generosity of this congregation. I am proud of your generosity! This is the question.

Does your community spirit reflect God’s will? Galatians 2:10 says, “They asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”  I am glad you are generous because there is so much need. Did you know that 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day? (World Bank Development) Did you know 22,000 children a day die due to poverty? (UNICEF) God expects us to help them. Are you more like Scrooge, who saw the problem and did nothing? Are you more like Mary, who surrendered to God’s will?

This is question number three: does your self-image reflect God’s will? Psychologists tell us that by age five, children have developed a definite self-image. Economics and social standing influence that self-image very little. The greatest influence on a child are the child’s parents. That makes parenting even more overwhelming. How good of a job did your parents do? Do you have a good self-image or a poor one? I am always amazed at how tough people are on themselves. This is the question.

Does your self-image reflect God’s will? 1 John 3:1 says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so, we are.” Every day get up and look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are a child of God!

Are you more like Scrooge, who saw the problem did nothing? Are you more like Mary, who surrendered to God’s will?

Several years ago, Kathryn and I were in the state of Texas to visit relatives. One of the family members lives in San Antonio. We took that opportunity to visit the Alamo. I came away with a new appreciation for the events of April 6, 1836. For it was on that day the thirteen-day siege ended. Approximately 200 Texans were confronted by approximately 6,000 Mexican soldiers led by Santa Anna (1794-1876) during their war of independence. Some of the greatest names in American history were involved in the battle: Jim Bowie (1796-1836), Davy Crockett (1786-1836), and William Travis (1809-1836). The outcome at the Alamo was obvious, but they refused to surrender.

In one of the great scenes in North American history, William Travis lined up his soldiers and told them of their impending defeat. He drew a line in the sand and said any man wishing to leave the Alamo could do so without recourse. Only one man left. The others stepped over that line to stand with him, hence accepting their fate. History tells us each one died with honor and for a cause that was bigger than themselves. Santa Anna’s cruel treatment of their corpses changed the future of Texas. He wanted to shock his world with his might. Instead, he inspired many Texans to defeat the Mexicans because of his cruelty. About six weeks later, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston (1793-1863) defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto and their independence was won. This is my question for you.

What in the world does the Virgin Mary have to do with the Alamo? The answer is everything. The Virgin Mary stepped over the line in the sand and stood with God. However, she also challenges us to step over the line in the sand and stand with God too. When you step over the line you are surrendering your world view for God’s world view. When you step over the line you adopt a new community spirit. You have true compassion for your struggling neighbor. The needy in our world need our help. When you step over the line you rebuild your self-image. Never forget you are a child of God! Saint Ignatius once said, “It is not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey.”

The Ghost of Christmas Past

You know the story. Everybody knows the story.Miserable old businessman Ebenezer Scrooge lived for nothing but money. The problem was, his money was not making him happy, it was making him miserable. Everyone in his life knew it. His office clerk, Bob Cratchit knew it. His nephew, Fred knew it. The two nameless chaps collecting for the poor knew it. His deceased business partner, Jacob Marley knew it. However, Marley also knew change was still possible, so he came to visit Scrooge. He told him that three more ghosts would come to visit him. The first would be the Ghost of Christmas Past. The second would be the Ghost of Christmas Present. The third would be the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future. They were coming for one reason, transformation!

When we last left Scrooge, he was waiting. When the clock struck one, the waiting ended. The Ghost of Christmas Past came in the form of a young woman. Her presence is so bright that he can hardly see her. In accordance with her name, she shows him his past Christmases. His memories are a mixed bag. Some of his Christmas memories were wonderful memories. There was the Christmas that he partied with old Fezziwig. There was the Christmas his sister Fanny escorted him home. Some of his Christmas memories were not so great. There was the Christmas he spent in school alone. How many wonderful Christmas memories do you have? How many Christmases do you wish you could forget? In many ways, we are no different than Scrooge. You know the truth.

Everyone is expected to be merry at Christmas. Does anyone here have a problem with that last statement? For many, Christmas is not merry. For some, Christmas is not merry because of the death of a loved one. It may be a spouse. It may be a parent. It may be the death of a good friend or the death of a child. For some, Christmas is not merry because there is a lack of money. They are unemployed or underemployed. They have mismanaged their money in the past, and that has tainted their present. For some, Christmas is not merry because of reality. In their youth they had such dreams. They were going to see the world and make a million along the way. They have seen nothing but their leaky wet basement in their rented home. For others, Christmas is not merry because of failing health. Does anyone here feel like they have let the youngest generation down? Do I have to go on, or do you get the picture? Christmas has a way of magnifying our disappointments. Christmas is not always merry.

Our scripture lesson for today comes from the first chapter of Luke, verses 26-45. You know the scripture. Perhaps, we have grown too comfortable with it. It is not really our fault. It has been told and retold over the past 2,000 years. It has been promoted by both the secular and the sacred worlds. Countless sermons have been written about it. Some of the greatest pieces of music have been inspired by it, and the masters of the art world have tried to capture it. In every home a Nativity set sits proudly on display to remind us of the story of the birth of Jesus. Do you know of anyone who does not know the story of the birth of Jesus? This morning I challenge you to look at this story from a different perspective. In your mind’s eye, strip away the traditions. I just want you to listen to the words. What does the Bible say? The Bible says it all began with an unwanted pregnancy. That unwanted pregnancy placed a young woman in a difficult situation. Once you walk in Mary’s shoes, the scripture suddenly comes to life.

Mary models for us how to survive in our world. She illustrates three things about life. They are the outline for my message today. First, she illustrates for us that life is hard. There is nothing easy about life. Second, she illustrates for us that sometimes we need others. She went to her cousin, Elizabeth. Third and finally, she illustrates for us that we always need God. I promise I will be brief.

First, Mary illustrates for us: life is hard. Life has always been hard. If you do not believe me, then look at the Nativity itself. Do not glamorize the story. Do not get sucked into the tradition; just read the words. Every person in the story was in a difficult situation. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant woman. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was no right answer. On the one hand, he has every right to divorce Mary and walk away. The problem is, Mary would have been found guilty of adultery. That means she could be stoned to death. How could he live with her death on his hands? On the other hand, if he takes Mary as his own, then he brings shame on himself. He is saying he has broken the abstinence law during the engagement. Zachariah and Elizabeth were in a difficult situation. They have no children and their society demanded children. If you turn to the second chapter of Matthew, then you find the story of the Magi. All they wanted to do was worship the new-born king. Do you remember what happened? Their sincere actions led to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. Do I have to go on? Each one of the characters reminds us that life is hard. Do you know of anyone who has a hard life? Could it be that you have a hard life? Do you know of anyone who has ever said, “Life is much easier than I ever expected!” No! Life is hard! If you agree that life is hard, say, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had a hard life!

Second, Mary illustrates for us: sometimes we need others. Look at the story one more time with me. Mary was from the town of Nazareth. In her time, Nazareth had a population of between 100 and 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town?

Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Mary is single and pregnant in a small town. Everyone in her life is talking about her pregnancy. She is the hot topic at the well. The story says she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Biblical scholars believe she went for two reasons. First, she goes to Elizabeth to escape the people in her life. Second, she goes to Elizabeth to receive some unconditional love. Has there ever been a time in your life when you needed the counsel of someone else? Have you ever been the counsel for someone else?

Sometimes we need people. Mary went to Elizabeth. Where do you go? Have you ever gone to visit a relative? Have you ever gone to visit a friend? Have you ever traveled to a counselor or a support group? Don’t feel guilty! Sometimes we need people. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had no unconditional love.

Third and finally, Mary illustrates for us: we always need God. Beyond our reading for today comes one of the great pieces of scripture in the Bible. It is called the Magnificat; it means “glorifies”. In that song, Mary completely surrenders to God’s will. Just think about that for a moment. She sacrificed her dreams and desires for her life for God’s will. Generations later, she reminds us that we always need God.

One of the things that makes Christmas so difficult is all the images of the season. Christmas is the most visual holiday of the year. The season is filled with Christmas trees and Christmas lights. It is filled with Christmas cards and Christmas gifts. It is filled with Santa Claus and the Nativity. There are Christmas movies and Christmas cookies. There is both sacred and secular Christmas music. No matter where you turn, you are reminded of Christmas. You are expected to be merry. What happens when Christmas isn’t merry? For many, those images are painful. Do you know anyone who can’t wait to get Christmas over? Maybe we need a new image?

Years ago, Kathryn and I had the great fortune to travel to Israel. It was a great trip and we saw amazing things. The highlight for me was traveling to Bethlehem. It is not far from Jerusalem, about 5.5 miles. You can feel the spiritual tension. It is a sacred spot for three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and the Muslim faith. Every Christmas Eve I think about being in the Church of the Nativity. It is the spot where they say Jesus was born. The exact spot is under the center altar. We stood in line to get to that spot. The spot is marked by a brass star on the floor. To feel the spot where Christ was born, you had to get on your knees. I did it and I felt a spiritual rush. All the problems of this world seemed to disappear, and I viewed the world with eyes fixed on eternity. I was not the only one. Others felt that spiritual rush. There was a woman on the other side of the center altar who was overwhelmed with emotion. She was crying because she touched the spot where Jesus was born. I will never forget that experience. It was like touching the fingertips of God. How would your life change if you could touch the fingertips of God?

You know it is true. There is nothing easy about life. It is so hard that sometimes we reach out to others. It may be in the form of a support group or a professional counselor. That supporting person may be a relative or a friend. Sometimes we need others. However, we always need God. David Jeremiah once said, All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”

Mankind Is Our Business

We find ourselves in the Gospel of Luke. You may remember Luke’s background. Luke was born into a Gentile family, but he was educated in the Greek classics. When his formal education was completed, he was a doctor. However, the church will always remember him as a companion of Paul during his second missionary journey. That is the reason many consider Luke to be Paul’s Gospel. The first four verses of Luke are vital because they set the stage for the rest of the book.

In the opening four verses, Luke admits his work is not original. There have been other books that have tried to summarize the life of Jesus Christ. His book is different for one reason. Luke, himself, can be trusted. His accounts have come from eyewitnesses and fellow believers. Luke investigated those stories. The false ones have been eliminated. The true ones have been included. He does all this work for one reason. He wants this body of believers, personified in this person, Theophilus, to know the truth. This is the truth. Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the only son of God and our holy hope of salvation. Jesus came for one reason, to be the bridge between mankind and God. Marley may have said it after his death, but Jesus demonstrated it in his life; MANKIND WAS HIS BUSINESS! That simple understanding takes us to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.

You know the story. Everybody knows the story. Ebenezer Scrooge lived for one thing, money! Nothing else really mattered to him. Day in and day out, he sat at his place of business making more money. The problem was, his money wasn’t making him happier, it was making him miserable. If you don’t believe me then ask the people in his life. You could ask his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Working in the cold, he barely made enough for his family to survive. He not only feared Scrooge, but he pitied him. He knew Scrooge was miserable. You could ask his nephew, Fred. He was Scrooge’s sister’s only child. She died in childbirth. Annually, he went to his Uncle Ebenezer’s office to invite him to Christmas dinner. Every year Fred was turned down, but he always went back. He knew his uncle was miserable. You could ask those two nameless chaps who came to his office to collect for the poor. They were shocked by his treatment, but they knew the truth. Scrooge was miserable. Without the miraculous, Scrooge would have died miserable, but the miraculous came in the form of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley.

You know the story. Everybody knows the story. Scrooge is locked safety in the security of his own home when the most unusual things begin to happen. It begins innocently enough. The doorknocker is transformed. The lion’s face turns in to Jacob’s face. The wind blows without warning. The clocks strike out of time. Scrooge locks his bedroom doors for extra security, but it doesn’t matter. Without an invitation, Marley enters the room. He is visiting Scrooge for one reason, transformation! He must change his ways or face a horrible fate. Scrooge is like many in our time; he doesn’t like change. He appeals to Marley’s practical side and reminds him of their days in business. He was a good businessman. They made a great deal money together. There is only one problem. Money-making was not their business. Scrooge was blind to what Marley knows. Marley says it clearly: MANKIND IS OUR BUSINESS! In other words, we are not just responsible for ourselves in this world, but we are responsible for others. We are responsible for the less fortunate. If you believe Christmas is just about getting gifts, then you have missed the point. Do you remember how Marley planned to transform Scrooge?

You know the story. Everybody knows the story. Jacob Marley arranges three visitors to visit Scrooge. The first is the ghost of Christmases past. The second is the ghost of Christmas present. The third is the ghost of Christmases yet to come or the future. That is the one Scrooge fears the most. How do you feel about your future? You can consider this message an overview of the next three weeks. I will unpack each one in the weeks to come. You know the story. Everybody knows the story. Jesus came for transformation too. Jesus came to transform you!

The first ghost that came to Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Past. You remember the story. His past is filled with some wonderful experiences and some not-so-great experiences. There was the Christmas that he spent partying with Fezziwig, and the Christmas he spent at the school alone. Scrooge’s past was filled with both the good and bad. Can anyone relate to that statement? Christmas memories are not all the same. How many wonderful Christmas memories do you hold near your heart? How many Christmas memories do you have that will make you cry? For many, Christmas isn’t merry.

In the past few years, the church has begun to recognize those who struggle during Christmas. We call it a Blue Christmas service. It is for those people who struggle with the blues during the month of December. They struggle with their broken dreams or disappointments. The passing of a loved one. The one true love who never came. The adult child who never achieved independence. The job that was lost. The money that was wasted. The health that failed. I have preached at those services, and I remind people of three things:

  1. Life is hard!
  2. Sometimes we need others!
  3. We always need God!

That is why we come to church. It is nice to see our friends, but what we really want is God. Do you remember what Jesus said in Matthew 28? The Master said, “I am with you always until the very end of time.” If you are thankful that God has always been with you, say, “Amen!” The first Ghost was the ghost of Christmas Past.

The second ghost that came to Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present. You remember the story. Scrooge’s world was filled with poverty. The embodiment of that poverty was his clerk, Bob Cratchit. He was enslaved in Scrooge’s lifeless office for slave wages. Out of that small income, he was to provide for his family. Scrooge is so consumed with himself that he doesn’t know a single thing about Cratchit’s family.

It is the Ghost of Christmas Present who introduces him. The saddest member in the family is Bob’s crippled son, Tiny Tim. Once Scrooge meets him, everything begins to change. Charity is when you collect for strangers. Missions is when you get personally involved with human need. How would your perspective change about the poor if you knew one?

Matthew 25 is one of the great chapters in the Bible. You know it because we have visited it so many times. In that chapter we hear the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats are separated. The sheep go to heaven, but the goats go to hell. The distinction is simple. The sheep responded to human need, but the goats failed. Jesus said it clearly. When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me. That verse always troubles me. There is no shortage of human need in our world this Christmas. Jesus expects us to help them. What are you doing to help the needy this year? The first ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Past. The second ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The third and final ghost that came to Scrooge was the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future. You remember the story. Wearing that long black robe, the face of the ghost is never seen. The gender is never disclosed. The only thing that appears are those long boney fingers. They point to the home of the Cratchit family. There is a surplus of both love and hardship. In the future, Tiny Tim will pass. Those boney fingers point to a grave and Scrooge is faced with his own fate, his own death. As the ghost leaves, Scrooge is begging for one more chance. He will keep the spirit of Christmas in his heart 365 days a year! Scrooge did not want to die. I have never met a person who wanted to die. We all want to live for eternity. There is only one option for eternal life.

The Gospel of Luke was written for one reason. He wanted you to know the truth. He wanted you to know about the greatest life that ever lived. He wanted you to know that Jesus was the only son of God. He wanted you to know that Jesus was your only hope of salvation. It does not come out of the Gospel of Luke, but it comes out of the Gospel of John. However, Luke would agree. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son. That whoever believes in him my not perish but have eternal life.”

Everyone agrees!Charles Dickens was a literary genius. He was one the great talents in the history of British literature. He is remembered as a social critic, who created some of the world’s best known fictional characters. He is considered to the be the greatest novelist during the Victorian Era. His works include Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, The Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol. There are more but I am limited by time. I remember reading some of them when I was in school. They were penned over one-hundred and fifty years ago and are considered classic. Charles Dickens was a literary genius, but he was not much of a theologian.

Dickens had Jacob Marley visit Ebenezer Scrooge for one reason, transformation! That is why the ghost of Christmases past came. That is why the ghost of Christmas present came. That is why the ghost of Christmas future came. This is the truth. It was a waste of time! All Scrooge needed was Jesus. Mankind was his business! When you have Jesus, you have peace with the past. When you have Jesus, you have purpose with the present. When you have Jesus, you have hope for the future. All Scrooge needed was Jesus and so do you.