Mr. Potter’s World

In 1946, Frank Capra (1893-1991) released the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Made for approximately $3 million dollars, he both produced and directed the film. It was. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. Today, it is one of the most loved movies in America. It is a Christmas classic that is viewed annually by many. I have watched it countless times. How many times have you watched It’s a Wonderful Life?

I love the scene in the movie when Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), offers George a job. For years, Potter has frustrated the people of Bedford Falls for personal gain. He is the perfect villain. The scene begins with Mr. Potter offering George some thinly veiled complements. George is a young man with high potential. The only logical thing to do is increase his income by going to work for Potter. At first, George is tempted by the offer. Then, he shakes Potter’s hand and everything changes. George begins to consider the consequences of his new position. With strong words for Potter, George races out of the office. You can feel his frustration. In just a few seconds, George goes from living on the mountaintop to living in the valley. In other words, he goes from living with hope to living without hope. In the end, he does what is best for others. Have you ever felt like George Bailey? At one time you had hope, but now your hopes are dead. They died from a terminal case of responsibility.

The reason It’s a Wonderful Life is so popular is we can relate to George Bailey. We live in a Mr. Potter world, and we all play the part of George Bailey. We are trying to stay hopeful about the future, but it is hard. The news is filled with nothing but hopelessness. The theme of every story depressing. The word that is used repeatedly is strife. There is strife between the political parties. There is strife between ethnic factions and strife among nations. There is strife between the economic classes. Our world is filled with strife and hopeless, hunger, pollution, and violence. Crime seems to be spreading to every community, so our prisons are filled. Our hospitals are filled with both the physically and mentally ill. How many people do you know are addicted to drugs or alcohol? Third World Nations are hopelessly in debt to the world banks. There seems to be a shortage of hope. Hopelessness has permeated our society. The by-product of our hopeless world is negative people. How many negative people do you know? The Dalai Lama (born 1935) once said, “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus on the brightness. I do not judge the universe.”

Maybe that is why we love Christmas? To the believer, Christmas is more than decorations, gifts, cards, and parties. It is more than community spirit, volunteerism, and family. Christmas is about the incarnation of God. American historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968) once said, “The primary source of the appeal of Christianity is Jesus – His incarnation, His life, His crucifixion, and His Resurrection.” Without Jesus, we would be living in a hopeless Mr. Potter world. Jesus changed everything and still offers the world hope. In the blog, I want to talk about the three forms of hope Jesus offers.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is only loneliness. Since the birth of Jesus, the world has the opportunity of having a companionship with God. Jesus was more than a baby. Jesus was the incarnation of God. He left the perfection of heaven and entered our imperfect world. He left the perfection of heaven to slum it with people like us. The question that has haunted the generations is, “Why?” This is the answer. God loves us and wants to relate to the human condition. There has never been a moment in your life when you were alone. God is always present. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In 2012, America’s northeast was hit by Hurricane Sandy. It was a category three hurricane. For years, homes and community stood in that area. In a matter of a few hours everything was destroyed. It took years to rebuild those homes and communities. Many from around the country went to the New York City area to help. Some that needed help were firefighters who went to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the gulf coast in 2005. Some of the New Orleans firefighters traveled to the north to lend a hand and return the favor. They interviewed one of the men. He said there is a bond among fire fighters around the country. According to him, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy forged a special bond between the firefighters of New York and New Orleans. One New York fire fighter simply said, “It’s nice to know we are not alone.”  We are not alone. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is ignorance. Since the birth of Jesus, the world can live in wisdom. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey struggled financially, but he was a rich man when it came to relationships. The same thing can be said about Jesus. When it came to personal finances, Jesus was a failure. He only owned the clothes on his back and traveled within a small geographic area. However, when it came to relationships, he was successful. Jesus showed us how to live. The wise know the key to happiness in life comes from our relationships. How rich are you?

During my time in the ministry, I would take the summer months and look at a single Old Testament character. One summer we looked at Ruth. She was the great-grandmother to King David. Do you remember her story? There was a great famine in the land of Judah, and many were forced out of their homes. One man who was forced to leave was named Elimelech. He was married to a woman named Naomi. They had two sons. The four of them settled in Moab. It was only natural that the sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. You can’t blame them. You know what they say about Moabite women! In time, all the males in the story die so the women are forced to live alone. Women had no rights in those days. They had nothing, so Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return home. Orpah does and says, “Goodbye.” However, Ruth remains devoted to Naomi. She does not stay with her for some legalistic reason. She stays out of love. This Old Testament character teachers us a New Testament principle. The most valuable thing in our lives is our relationships. Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom.

In a Mr. Potter’s world there is discord. Since the birth of Jesus, we can at peace with God. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior in December 1974. The one emotion I felt that day was peace. Since that time, I have lived at peace with God and no longer fear death. The apostle Paul said it best in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we live at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. 

In 1555, Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) was the Bishop of London. He was burned at the stake because for his faith. On the night before his execution, his brother offered to remain with him in the prison chamber. Nicholas declined the offer. He wanted to go to bed early because he wanted a good night’s rest. He said, “Tomorrow, I am going to meet my Savior.” Those words reveal the truth. He was completely comfortable with his death and completely at peace with God. How at peace are you with God? How did you sleep last night? Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom. Jesus came to offer us peace.

Christmas is just a few weeks away. This will be the first year in forty years, I will not be leading worship on Christmas Eve. It is an odd feeling. In the past, I led as many as three worship services on Christmas Eve, but the one I enjoyed the most was the last one, the 11:00 Christmas Eve candlelight service. I looked forward to it annually. The crowds were gone, and I could relax. I was comfortable with my message because I had already preached it twice. I just listened to the words of the sacred texts, the second chapter of Luke and the first chapter of John. I have heard those words our entire life. Every time those words move me. I am so humbled God entered this world.

Between now and Christmas, I would challenge you to simply read the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas narrative is so large it can’t be described by one author. Each one of the writers handles it in this own way. For some reason, Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus. He is silent on the topic. John looks at the birth of Jesus in a logical way. You remember the verse. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.” Luke, the common man’s Gospel, tries to include the actions of that sacred night, including common people. He tells us about the no vacancy sign at the inn. He tells us about the manger. He tells us about the shepherds and the angels. Matthew, the Jewish Gospel, tells us about Jesus’ genealogy, the coming of the Magi and the Holy families escape to Egypt. There are so many parts to the story, so you must read all four Gospels, so you get the whole picture.

Don’t read them to preach it or teach it. Read the words for the edification of your own soul. I guarantee they will move you because your soul will be enriched. Be thankful you don’t life in Mr. Potter’s hopeless world. Be thankful you live in a hopeful world dominated by Jesus Christ. Christmas reminds us of our divine companionship. Christmas reminds us to value our relationships. Christmas reminds us of our divine peace. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) once said, “Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”

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!

Let There Be Light!

We find ourselves in the the spiritual gospel, John. It was written about the year AD 60 by the apostle that carries its name. John’s purpose for writing this gospel was to introduce the Christian message to the Greek thinking world. The other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were written to the Hebrew world. For that reason, this gospel stands alone. The Greek world clearly understood our Gospel lesson. They understood that the light of which John spoke was God. In other words, God, literally, came into the world to illuminate her dark places. That is the Good News of Christmas!

This is no shortage of darkness in our world. There seems to be a surplus of darkness in our world. I do not remember a time in my life when there seems to be so many complex problems. Maybe the reason is I am a pastor and I talk about other people’s problems regularly or maybe the reason is our world has drifted off course. Our country seems to be groping in the dark when it comes to the Coronavirus. Approximately 19 million have gotten the Coronavirus. Approximately 322,000 have died from the virus. Our country is groping in the dark racially. After all the talk of unity, we are still a divided people. Our country is groping in the dark sexually. Everyone has a firm opinion. It appears the United Methodist Church will divide over his topic in the next few months. Our country is groping in the dark economically. On the one hand, Wall Street is near an all-time high. On the other hand, many are struggling to obtain the basics. Did you know the unemployment rate in Ohio is 5.2%? Did you know the unemployment rate in Mahoning County and Trumbull County is 6.6%? has an unemployment rate of 6.6%? That figure is the highest in the state of Ohio. Help from Washington has stalled. Did you know our national debt is $27.5 trillion? Our country is groping in the dark when it comes to dealing with our national health care crisis. I do not know anyone who does not want everyone to have hospitalization. The problems are what will it cost and what will be covered? Our country seems to be groping in the dark internationally. Does anyone trust Iran or North Korea? I could go on, but I will not. It is all so depressing. We are groping in the dark at so many levels. Are you tired of all the darkness in our world?

This is the problem. God do not launch a program designed for international reform on Christmas. God seems to be more interested in eternity, than our temporary problems. God decided to reform the world one soul at a time. How reformed are you? How has Jesus, the light of the world, reformed you. American televangelist John Hagee (Born 1940) once said, “The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light.” It happened in three different ways.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Without Jesus there is no forgiveness. One of the great misdemeanors in America today is that you can earn your salvation. That is why volunteerism and caring for your community has become the rage. I have nothing against volunteerism or community spirit, but they will not get you into heaven. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. Never belittle the death of Jesus on the cross. His blood washed away your sins. His death made it possible for you to live. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. When you forgive others, you are telling God you are thankful that you are forgiven.

In October 2006, the country was shocked by another school shooting. This time the shooting was extremely cruel. It happened in Nickels Mines, Pennsylvania, in a one room old order Amish schoolhouse. The shooter was a man by the name of Charles Roberts. Before taking his own life, he shot eight of the ten girls, killing five. The only light in this dark story was the reaction of the Amish community. Within hours of the shootings, the Amish showed up at the door of Robert’s widow. They did not show up demanding revenge. They showed up to offer her comfort and support. How can you question the faith of these people? Can anyone question your faith? How easy is it for you to forgive, as you have been forgiven? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark present. In other words, Jesus told us how to live. The world tells the key to a happy life is making yourself the star of your life. You do that by accumulating possessions and getting a surplus of attention. There is a certain amount of logic to that philosophy. The only problem is it does not work. Michael Jackson, Elvis Pressley, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had more money and fame then they could handle. Do you consider their lives to be happy lives? Jesus said the key to living a happy life is making someone else the star in your life. I know we need a certain amount of money to survive and I know we all need a certain amount of attention. I know that Jesus’ key to a happy life does not make logical sense, but it is true. Research tells us that people who serve others live longer happier lives.

Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding their international convention. They wanted their founder, Gen. William Booth (1829-1912), to be their keynote speaker. The problem was Booth was old and weak. He could not speak because he could not go. So, he wired the convention his speech. It was one word! The one word: “OTHERS.” Do you wish you could hear a one-word sermon? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Jesus came to illuminate our dark present.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark future. Without Jesus there is no hope of heaven. During this calendar year, I have officiated at 34 funerals. They have all been different, but they end the same way. I ended each one of those services with these words. Perhaps, you remember them from your sad day. Jesus was born in the normal way, but he lived an extraordinary life. He never committed a single sin, which made him the prefect sacrifice. He was executed Roman style and his body was placed in a tomb. His loved ones grieved for him. That all happened on a Friday. No one knew what would happen later that weekend. Jesus returned from the dead. That resurrection changed everything. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no hope of eternal life. However, with the resurrection of Jesus we have hope of eternal life. Who is the first person you want to see when you get to heaven? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Jesus came to illuminate our dark present. Jesus came to illuminate your dark future.

For 51 years, Bob Edens was blind. That is a long to be living in the dark, trying to experience our world with just sounds and smells. Then it happened. A skilled surgeon performed a complicated operation, and, for the first time, Bob Edens had sight. Can you imagine? He was overwhelmed. He said, “I never would have dreamed that yellow is so…yellow. Red is so red. Purple is so purple.” he exclaimed. “I can see the shape of the moon and the vapor trail of a jet.” He said, “At night, I love to look at the light of the stars.” How many people do you know are blind?

How many people do you know are spiritually blind? Optometrists tell us that light is required to see. Your eyes can work perfectly, but without light you cannot see a thing! The brightest light that has ever shined is Jesus, God incarnate. How bright is Christ’s light? It is bright enough to illuminate your dark past. There is forgiveness in Christ. It is bright enough to illuminate your dark present. The key to a happier more content life is serving others. It is bright enough to illuminate your dark future. Someday all of us of faith are going to heaven. Do you remember the quote from John Hagee? He once said, “The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light.”

The Deeper Side of Christmas

It all began in the year 336. That is the first recorded date of Christmas being on December 25, during the reign Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the first Christian Emperor. There are many different theories or traditions as to why that date was selected. This is the one that I find most interesting. The early church believed Mary conceived Jesus on March 25. (The early church also believed Jesus died on the cross on March 25.) Nine months after March 25 is December 25, Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That date stuck. It is safe to say the western world has embraced Christmas. Each country has their own traditions to embrace the day. America is no different. I do not know of anyone who does not love Christmas.

 Several weeks ago, I was up late and googled the question, why do we love Christmas? I came up with several thousand websites. The website I chose was called “why Christmas.” It had an article called Twelve Reasons I Love Christmas. This is their list. I cannot disagree with a one.

  1.  Christmas Decorations: I like looking at Christmas decorations. According to the National Retail Association, the average American spent $60 on Christmas decorations this year. That is up $20 from last year.
  •  Hot Chocolate: I like drinking hot chocolate. The problem is the average cup of hot chocolate is 194 calories. The characters in Hallmark movies are always drinking hot chocolate, but they are thin.
  •  Snow: I like snow. I just do not like shoveling it. Did you the chance of a white Christmas in Ohio is less than 25%, according to the Weather Channel? This will not be a white Christmas.
  •  Christmas Movies: I like Christmas movies. My favorite Christmas movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I am not the only one. Did the know that movie, which was made $27 million, has made $73 million worldwide. Do you know anyone like Cousin Eddie?
  •  Receiving Christmas Gifts: I like getting Christmas gifts, but they made me uncomfortable because they make me feel guilty. I have good life, but there are many who live in poverty. Maybe my gift money should go to them? Did you know 700 million people in our world live on less than $1.90 a day?
  •  Spending Time with Loved Ones: I like spending time with loved ones. Life is short. Christmas is a great excuse to get together. There is an excellent chance you will see the people you love the most in the next 24 hours.
  •  The Food: I do not want to shock you, but I like food. Tomorrow afternoon I will eat my fill. I will not be able to eat another bite, and I will announce I will never eat again. A few hours later I will have a piece of pie.
  • Giving Back: I do not mind giving back. It comes in two forms. You can volunteer or you can make a financial donation. Did you know as a rule of thumb 25% of church contributions are given during the month of December?
  • Giving Gifts to Others: I like giving gifts. I cannot wait to see if my loved ones like what was purchased for them. I cannot wait to see my granddaughter open her gift from us.
  • The Christmas Tree: I like Christmas tree. Do you like a live Christmas tree or an artificial tree? Did you know the average American spent $78 on a Christmas tree? I am not proud of this, but I spent $2 more than the national average. It was worth every cent. We have a great tree this year.
  • Opening Gifts: I like opening presents? Do you open your presents on Christmas Eve or do you open your presents on Christmas morning? My family has always gotten up on early on Christmas morning to open gifts. Did you know, according to the National Retail Association, the average American will spend $998 on Christmas presents?
  • The Christmas Spirit:  I try to have the Christmas spirit, because I do not want to look like Scrooge. Have you ever been called a Scrooge?

Each one of those things are fun, but to those who believe, there is a deeper side of Christmas. There is the incarnation. That takes us to the scripture lesson for today.

 We find ourselves in the second chapter of Luke. Caesar Augustus, who sat on the throne of the Roman Empire from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14, issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. It happened when Quirinius was governor over Syria. That makes the date between A.D. 6 and 9. (Remember, the calendar was adjusted sometime in the past.) It will suffice to say, it was a long time ago. However, some things do not change. The census was taken for two reasons. The first was military serve. The Jews were excluded. The second was taxation. The Jews, like everyone else, were expected to pay. That meant Joseph went to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, his hometown. He did not travel alone, he traveled with a young pregnant teenager by the name of Mary. This is where the story gets deep. They had never known each other intimately, yet they were legally bound. The child she carried was the son of God and the time was drawing near for her to give birth. Timing is everything. The young couple must have worried the child would come during the journey, but the child waited until they arrived in Bethlehem. Any Sunday school child will tell you were the child was born. The baby, the son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, was born in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. They named the baby Jesus as directed by God. The name Jesus means “Savior.” I guess names do matter.

 It really is quite a story. It is unique to the Christian faith. Did you know, according to the United Nations, approximately 250 babies are born each minute in the world. That comes out to be 130 million in a year. That is a lot of babies in the history of the world. Each baby is special, but one was utterly unique. The infant Jesus changed everything. The deeper side of Christmas revolves around the incarnation of God. The Almighty came into the world to save us because mankind needed, and needs, saved. It has been written, “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.” Those words still hold true. May we never forget Christmas is a Christian holiday.

Located in Yorktown, Indiana is the New Life Presbyterian Church. The Senior Pastor of that church is a man by the name of Bob O’Bannon. He is a blogger. He says the incarnation is important for three especially important reasons. I will be brief.

  1.  The incarnation affirms the goodness of the physical existence. Many devalue the physical and glorify the spiritual. The fact that God came into our world and took a physical form tells us our physical forms are important. Our physical state is equally important to the spiritual realm. 1 John 4:2 says, “By this we know the spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” That is number one. This is number two.
  •  The incarnation means God is involved. It is easy to sit back and complain about something. It is something completely different to get involved and to help fix the problem. God did not just complain. God came into the world to become the solution. John 1:9 says, The true light, which gives everyone light, was coming into the world. That was number two. This is number three.
  •  The incarnation makes it possible for sins to be covered. May we never forget we are sinners. I quote nearly week Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” We are saved by grace and by grace alone. If Jesus had never have been born then your final destination would be hell, but Jesus was born, and everything changed. You know the story. Thirty-three later Jesus died on the cross giving us hope of eternal life. The question is do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, or are you going to hell?

It is the deeper side of Christmas, the incarnation of God. How can you question God’s love? He came for us.

 My childhood home had three bedrooms. One for my parents. One for my sisters and one for me. That was fine until company came. Usually, the company was my grandparents from Brooklyn. When they came, I was expelled from my bedroom and relocated to the landing leading up to the house’s attic. It was not so bad. My father set up cot and my mother handed me a sleeping bag. I was young, so I enjoyed it. The best part was the window by my cot. It was high and I could survey the whole neighborhood.

One Christmas Eve, I must have been about six years old, I was laying sleepless on my cot. The excitement of Christmas Eve had overwhelmed me. I thought about everything that had happened that evening and I thought about my presents the next morning. My mother warned me we would not be opening presents super early. We had to wait for my paternal grandparents to come. They were going to spend Christmas morning with us. They lived about an hour away. I think I must have woken up every fifteen minutes. Each time looking out the window. The time just could not go fast enough. It must have been about 5:00 when the exhaustion overtook me. When I woke up at 7:00 the sun was just starting to appear. When I looked out the window this time, I got a wonderful surprise. My grandparents were sitting in our driveway, so there would be no more waiting. They had been there quite some time because I thin layer of snow covered their car. I told my mother they had arrived, and she hustled down the stairs to let them in. When they walked in my mother confessed, she did not expect them so early. I can still hear my grandfather’s response. He said, “We had to come early because we did not want Russell to have to wait to open his presents.” Those words enforced what I already knew. My grandfather loved me. How do you question the love of someone who came just for you?

It is not just true of a small boy and his grandfather. It is also of God and mankind. How can you question God’s love? He came for you. Christmas is not just about presents and trees. It is not about decorations or food. There is a deeper side. There is the true meaning of Christmas, the incarnation.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said, “The Son of God became man to enable men to become sons of God.”

The Incarnation…

I love the story of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), who ran the FBI for years. No one questioned his authority, so his subordinates were on the lookout for ways to impress him. A young FBI agent was put in charge of office supplies. Trying to cut costs and impress his boss, he reduced the size of the office memo paper. One of the new memo sheets soon ended up on Hoover’s desk. Hoover took one look at it, determined he didn’t like the size of the margins on the paper, and quickly scribbled on the memo, “Watch the borders!” The memo was passed on through the office. For the next six weeks, it became nearly impossible to enter the United States from Mexico or Canada. The FBI was watching the borders. I tell you that story to make one simple point: communicating can be a complex thing.

Have you ever stopped to consider all the ways in which we have to communicate in our time? Like J. Edgar Hoover, you can write a simple note on a scrap piece of paper. You could write a formal letter on a piece of stationary. You can pick up your land line phone and call a loved one or business associate. You pick up your cell phone and call a fringe person in your life as you drive home from work or travel down the interstate. You can email a friend. You can rent a billboard. You can face time someone or communicate with them on Facebook. I could go on, but I won’t. You get the point.

There are more ways to communicate today than any other time in world history. However, this is also true. There are more ways to be misunderstood today than any other time in world. Do you know Brinkley’s Law? It says, “If there is any way it can be misunderstood–by someone, somewhere, sometime–it will be misunderstood.” When was the last time you were misunderstood trying to communicate? Perhaps, that is the reason God came into the world, taking the form of a human. The best kind of communication is still talking face to face.

At Christmas, we ponder the wonder of the incarnation of God. Just ponder that theological point for a moment. God left the perfection of heaven to enter this imperfect world. It is more than the human mind can handle. Augustine said the incarnation of God is beyond all human understanding. But perhaps one of the reasons he came into the world was to communicate with us. He didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding, so he came into the world to communicate with us face to face. This evening I want to talk about tree things that God wants to communicate to us. They are three great revelations that are grounded in basic Christian theology. Each one is important to the spiritual maturity. My goal is to help you have a better understanding of God and a greater appreciation of God’s plan for you in this world.

First, the incarnation reveals the heart of God. The great Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) told the story of a prince who was running an errand for his father one day in the local village. As he did so, he passed through a very poor section of the town. Looking through the window of his carriage, he saw a beautiful young peasant girl walking along the street. He could not get her off his heart. He continued to come to the town, day after day, just to see her and to feel as though he was near her. His heart yearned for her, but there was a problem. How could he develop a relationship with her? He could order her to marry him. It was within his powers to do so. But he wanted this girl to love him from the heart, willingly. He could put on his royal garments and impress her with his regal entourage and drive up to her front door with soldiers and a carriage drawn by six horses. But if he did that, he would never be certain that the girl loved him or was simply overwhelmed with his power, position and wealth. The prince came up with another solution. He moved into the village dressed only as a peasant. He lived among the people, shared their interests and concerns, and talked their language. In time, the young peasant girl grew to know him, and then to love him. That is the story of Christmas!

John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God came into the world to tell us that me love you and me! The incarnation reveals to us the very heart of God. The God of the universe is in love with us! He could have impressed us with his power. He could have ordered us to love him. But God entered this world to share our interests and concerns to win our hearts. The incarnation reveals the heart of God.

Second, the incarnation reveals our greatest human need. They tell me sitting majestically atop the highest hill in Toledo, Spain, is the Alcazar, a 16th-century fortress. In the civil war of the 1930’s, the Alcazar became a battleground when the Loyalists tried to oust the Nationalists, who held the fortress. During one dramatic episode of the war, the Nationalist leader received a phone call while in his office at the Alcazar. It was from his son, who had been captured by the Loyalists. They have the son an ultimatum to deliver to his father. If the father didn’t surrender the Alcazar to them, they would kill his son. The father weighed his options. After a long pause and with a heavy heart, he said to his son, “Then die like a man.” Let there be no doubt about it. Jesus died like a man.

Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God understands our greatest need was for a savior. Do you remember these words?

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”

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.

Third, the incarnation reveals the mystery of God’s plan. The Hebrew world waited for generations for the Messiah. They knew he is going to be something special! They dreamed of his greatest, but they almost missed him because he was quite common. The story of the nativity is filled with common people. The announcement is given to common laborers in the fields, who their orthodox leaders had rejected, the shepherds. When the Messiah is born, he is entrusted to a common couple, Mary and Joseph. Two years later, when the Magi appeared, they go to the palace because the child was a king. They find him in the barn. The mystery of God’s plan is that it is entrusted to common people like you and me.

1 Timothy 3:16 says, “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” 
From the very beginning God’s plan to save the world had been a mystery. It is impossible to understand God’s ways. The incarnation reveals the mystery of God’s plan.

Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) was making one of his great epic movies. He had six cameras at various points to pick up the overall action and five other cameras set up to film plot developments involving the major characters. The large cast had begun rehearsing their scene at 6 a.m. They went through it four times and now it was late afternoon. The sun was setting and there was just enough light to get the shot done. DeMille looked over the panorama, saw that all was right, and gave the command for action. One hundred extras charged up the hill; another hundred came storming down the same hill to do mock battle. In another location Roman centurions lashed and shouted at two hundred slaves who labored to move a huge stone monument toward its resting place. Meanwhile the principal characters acted out, in close-up, their reactions to the battle on the hill.  It took fifteen minutes to complete the scene. When it was over, DeMille yelled, “Cut!” and turned to his assistant, all smiles. “That was great!” he said. “It was, C.B.,” the assistant yelled back. “It was fantastic! Everything went off perfectly!” Enormously pleased, DeMille turned to face the head of his camera crew to find out if all the cameras had picked up what they had been assigned to film. He waved to the camera crew supervisor. From the top of the hill, the camera supervisor waved back, raised his megaphone, and called out, “Ready when you are, C.B.!” The communication was poor. They hadn’t filmed a single thing!

Don’t let that story be your Christmas. It has been a wonderful scene. There has been the colored lights and the holiday decorations. There has 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 don’t miss what God is trying to tell you. Christmas is not just about the birth of a baby that came into the world two thousand years ago. It is about God, himself, taking a human form to experience all that we experience. He came to make sure there was no miscommunication. He came to reveal his heart. He came to reveal his plan. He came to reveal our great need. It has been said, “The beauty of Christmas is not in the presents but in His presence.”