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South Fellowship Church

Advent | Embrace Immanuel | Matthew 1:18-25 | Week 4

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ADVENT: Embrace Immanuel     Matthew 1:18-25    Pastor Larry Boatright   (1st Service)

{Manuscript–View video for complete content}       I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, my parents worked in a factory about a half hour away from where we lived, and I was home alone for most of the day.  We didn’t have cable or satellite or anything like that, and I didn’t have a Nintendo, so the only thing to watch on TV during the day were the three channels our antenna would pick up.  We had this antenna on top of the house, and you had a DIAL inside you’d TURN in order to turn the antenna the right way to get the best signal. It was bananas.  Anyway, there were three things on during the day during those days:  Game shows.  Talk shows. And finally, soap operas.  And I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I became addicted to talk shows and soap operas.  One thing was similar, they always left on a cliffhanger, whether to cut to a commercial or to end the show.  I watched Phil Donahue, Oprah, and Maury Povich.  And I watched “General Hospital” and “All My Children.”  I mean, I got into them and couldn’t wait for them each day.  Right before the commercial, whether it was a talk show or a soap opera, some BIG NEWS got dropped on someone.  On a soap opera, it would often be a woman telling a man, “I’m pregnant,” and it either was or wasn’t his baby.  And then, the camera would go tight on the person who received this hard news and hold for like 15 seconds.  They would contort their face every which way, and dramatic music played to illustrate that they were wrestling with the news.  A few years ago, my wife and I got addicted to the show “24.”   At some point, I realized, “This is just a night time soap opera!”.  It sounds kind of funny, but most of us have had moments in our lives where we receive unexpected news, or we are going in a particular direction and something happens to redirect our path.  Thank goodness those moments aren’t recorded for posterity, at least for most of us!

We’re in the fourth and final week of Advent, that time in the Church calendar BEFORE Christmas where the church lives in the tension between the resurrection of Jesus and His return.  The first two weeks were somewhat heavy passages.  Then last week, Dan shifted gears a little and started preparing our hearts for the coming of the Messiah.  And now we find ourselves two days away from Christmas Eve, which, by the way, I’m really excited about, so I hope you’ll invite your friends and family to come!  So, this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re turning the page in our Advent journey to go back and look behind the scenes of Jesus’ impending incarnation, as we prepare our hearts for Christmas.  If you have your Bible with you, or you can bring it up on your phone, I’d love to invite you to turn to Matthew chapter 1.  We’re going to be looking at verses 18-25.

In the first seventeen verses of Matthew 1, we see the genealogy of Jesus; his ancestry, if you will.  Unlike the Lukan account that shows his lineage through Mary, this account traces the descendants of Abraham and David, to show Jesus to be in the line of the Davidic King.  In that day, though we know Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s blood-born child, he would legally have been Joseph’s son, so in multiple ways, Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic King.  So imagine, to first-century hearers, hearing about his lineage and then turning the page and hearing this account of Mary becoming pregnant…..it WASN’T what they would have expected!  In this account, it’s not the warm and fuzzy “baby in a manager” telling of the incarnation.  No, it reads a little bit like a soap opera, with unexpected news, a decision to make, an angelic visit, a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, and more.  Sounds like “Lord of the Rings,” or “Game of Thrones,” or “Harry Potter” or something like that.  Yet, as we heard just a moment ago, it’s the account of Joseph contending with the fact that Mary, the woman he is engaged to, is pregnant  and, just like in a soap opera, it’s. Not. His. Baby.  Dun Dun Dun.  Talk about some crazy family of origin stuff!

I think we are going to see today that there are often interruptions to our lives, but that God has been orchestrating things all along—rooted in His love—and that if we will look for Messiah, learn to trust Him, that He will work things out for good.  Let’s dive in. I’ll walk us through the text, and point out some observations along the way.  18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

To really grasp what is going on here, we have to go back a little bit into ancient near-eastern culture.  We see that Mary and Joseph were “pledged to be married.”  What does that mean, exactly?  It’s quite a bit different than engagement in our day and time.  In those days, quite often this kind of marriage was arranged between their parents.  Mary was probably between 12 and 16 years of age, and Joseph was probably between 18 and 20 years of age.  The idea of engagement back then had two parts:  The engagement arrangement itself, and then the Marriage.  The engagement was where they were officially committed, but in our culture, if an engagement is ended, we say they “called off the engagement.”   In those days, calling off the engagement would be considered a divorce.  In fact, if either partner in the engagement passed away during the engagement, the other partner would be considered a widow or a widower.   Needless to say, they took being ‘pledged to be married’ almost as if they WERE married.  Engagement lasted about a year, and during that time, especially in Galilee, premarital privacy between the couple was frowned upon, so they likely hadn’t spent much time together at this point.  Imagine being forced to become engaged to someone you may not know all that well, and not really being allowed to spend quality time with them until you were married.

So Joseph found himself in a pretty weird situation.  The woman he was pledged to marry—the GIRL, really—became pregnant.  Through the Holy Spirit.  What we don’t have is a record of their conversation.  Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall?   “Hey, Mary, I notice you’re having a bit of a bump on your belly. I thought you were on KETO.  What’s going on?”   Mary says, “Oh, what, this?”  She looks down and says, “Funny story…” She proceeds to tell him, “Yes, I’m with child, but it’s the Holy Spirit’s baby.”  If we’re honest and try to put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes, it would be natural to be skeptical.  I mean, yeah right, it’s the Holy Spirit’s baby.  That sounds like a Maury Povich episode—“Holy Spirit, you ARE the father.  We’ve got the results.”

It would be natural to assume that, since they hadn’t been together, that she had been unfaithful.  And this presented a real problem for Joseph, because he followed God.  Joseph was faithful to the law and the law was clear.  In a case of infidelity, he could divorce her or even worse, she could be sentenced to death by stoning.  This wasn’t real common this time in history, but it was still possible.  What do you do when you’re trying to do the right thing, when you’re trying to walk the right path, and a curveball gets thrown in your face?  Look at verse 19 — Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Joseph was doing his best to follow the law; he was a righteous man.  And he knew what the law said.  He really only had two options here. (1) Go public with it. Blast it on Facebook, send out emails, make a video, make it a really big deal, and publicly shame her, and explain the consequences of what he thought was her sin. (2) Divorce her quietly. Do it privately with a couple of witnesses, and let the memory of the betrothal fade into obscurity.  We have the benefit of hindsight here, so we know what happened, and we see that Joseph was a great guy.  But imagine how he must have felt at this time.  He was in this season of waiting.  He was excited, and I’d dare say, in love with this girl who soon would be his wife, and a bombshell got dropped on him.  His dreams came crashing down.  Starting a family.  Becoming a father.  All of his plans laid out in his mind.  And then it all got interrupted.

Maybe you’ve felt that way—you were waiting on something special, something you were looking forward to.  Maybe you were looking forward to a dream to come true you’ve dreamed about for years.  Several years ago, my cousin Melissa and her husband built a brand new house. They were SO excited about it. They literally were days away from moving in.  One of the last touches was for the contractors to stain the custom cabinets, wait  for them to dry and fumes dissipate and then they could move it. They cabinets were finished and beautiful and they were waiting.  Later that night, Melissa received a call from a neighbor that their house was on fire.  Yes, their BRAND NEW HOUSE.  She and her husband stood outside as they watched this brand new house burn to the ground.  Apparently, the rags the contractors used to stain the cabinets were put into buckets at the end of the day, and in the hot Oklahoma summer they combusted in those buckets, caught the cabinets on fire, and burned the house down.  A dream was gone.

I think we’ve all experienced those moments of waiting for something good, and experiencing massive loss and disappointment along the way.  Remember, Joseph was human, so he no doubt had to deal with a swirl of human emotions, and a desire to honor God and to follow the law.  But I also think we see a clear picture that the character of God was being modeled right from Joseph.  Instead of publicly shaming her, even though he likely felt shame, he decided to honor her and protect her, and extend mercy towards her.  So we see an important lesson about who God is by how he modeled this.  God’s faithfulness and his mercy are always on display.  Life might be messy and we might not see it.  Your marriage or relationships might be strained.  Your business might be struggling or work might not be going well.  I can promise you that in the midst of the fog of all of those things, God’s faithfulness and his mercy are always on display.  I think that’s really, really good news! Think about a time when you deserved the opposite of mercy, but God gave it to you and protected you along the way.

I think we see something beautiful….that Joseph considered Mary and decided to honor her, even though it must have been really hard.  But, as God has a tendency to do when we think we have our perfect plan crafted, God showed up in a pretty amazing way.  Verse 20 — But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

What did angels usually say when they met humans in Scripture?  Do not be “afraid.” Afraid of what? Of THEM!  I mean, how crazy would it be for an angelic being to appear? How could you not be afraid?  But this angel said something different.  He said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” meaning, “Don’t be afraid to go through the marriage and trust that what she said was true.”  Don’t be afraid to listen to what she said, to be obedient to God, even though it didn’t make sense.  He affirmed what she said, this child is from the Holy Spirit,  meaning, “This interruption is a God-interruption, so don’t be afraid to let your plans shift.” That’s tough for most of us.  We like to control things and order things to go a certain way, don’t we? I once performed a wedding where the bride literally sat in a limo with a walkie-talkie and barked orders throughout the majority of the wedding.  That’s a great example of someone who likes to control things.

But in those seasons of waiting for God to show up sometimes He provides a divine interruption, and it inevitably changes the game and requires us to trust Him.  Control and trust aren’t always equal.  Listen to the words of Proverbs 16:9 — A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.  How many times have you made a plan that sounds right and God redirects it for some reason?  Just like us, Joseph plotted his course and he had it all worked out.  Beautiful fiancé, beautiful future.  But then….beautiful fiancé who is pregnant, with God’s baby.  I imagine him going,  “How am I going to explain this to my friends?”  God shifted those plans, but He didn’t leave him in the dust. He met with Joseph via an angel and directed his steps and gave them divine purpose.

This child, this unseen but present child, name him Jesus.  Jesus was a pretty common name in the first century, by the way.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, the people had been living under Roman oppression for quite some time and the nation was longing for God’s intervention.  Jesus was the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Joshua, or YAHWEH, and it literally means, “God saves”.  So Joseph is instructed to name his boy (who would legally be his, even though Jesus isn’t biologically his) a name that reflects the hope of the time—God saves—but this time, it’s God-ordained.  How powerful is it to have God give the name of the child and to know God was going to use this child to save the people from their sins!  See, we can rest assured that when those divine interruptions happen, those divine redirections, even when the intention behind what we set out to do was good, we can rest assured that God’s redirection or interruption is always for His glory, for His good purpose, even when we can’t see it at the time.

Now Matthew sort of pauses the story and looks right at the camera to give his Jewish audience a little perspective into what would no doubt have been a pretty incredulous story.  Look at verse 22:.  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).  This comes from the seventh chapter of the book of Isaiah, that Old Testament prophet.  Isaiah shared many things that were foretelling of this coming messiah, the savior, the eventual Davidic king.  But in the seventh chapter, the Lord was talking to Ahaz about two kings who had come to stand up against him. 
He basically said that a sign that God was about to move was that a young woman would conceive and give birth to the son.   We don’t know if it was Isaiah’s wife, or Ahaz’s wife, or who,  but that by the time this child was born and grew old enough to know the difference between right and wrong— about three years from the time he said it—the oppressive northern Kingdom would be destroyed.  God saves.  So it had a now and not yet aspect to what he said.  He said that would happen at that time, but he also was foreshadowing a day when a virgin would conceive a child, and they would call him Immanuel.

Now, we don’t see a record in the New Testament of anyone calling Jesus ‘Immanuel.’  The literal meaning of Immanuel is ‘God with us.’   As we’ll look at together on Christmas Eve, John 1 shows us that Jesus literally was the fulfillment of God with us, Immanuel.  So it’s like Matthew is pulling his audience aside and saying, “Listen, this is credible.  This story is the literal fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, whom I know you have respect for.”  Matthew’s writing to a Jewish audience and telling them, “Hey, this thing that you’ve been longing for?  I’m writing about it here.  It happened.”

So, as we prepare our hearts for Christmas, we see something powerful.  This soon-to-be-born baby has two names ascribed to him in this passage:  Jesus = God saves. This is about what God does, He saves.  The second name is Immanuel = God with us. This is about who God is, He is present with us.  He saves us and He is present with us.  For a hurting, oppressed people who felt forgotten, what good news this must have been.  Not only will God SAVE you, but He will be WITH you.  And for all of us, as a church that joins with millions of others in reading this same passage today as we prepare our hearts for Christmas, it’s good news for us.  GOD SAVES US and GOD IS WITH US.  Amen!

We all need the reminder that when we are waiting or moving forward with our plans and God interrupts, you need to remember it’s God’s very nature to save.  He gave his son the name Jesus, which means God saves.  God is the one that is responsible to guide you, to guard you, to protect you, as you move forward on your journey.  The second thing I want you to hear loud and clear is that it’s God’s nature to be WITH you. His presence is with you. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, through the good times and the bad.  Both of those things—God saves and God is with us—is really, really good news!  That is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, finally, Joseph had been deliberating what to do, and an angel came to him in a dream to tell him not to be afraid, to wholeheartedly follow God, and to wait on His perfect plan.  Before we go on, you might think this sounds bananas, like God could really speak to someone through a dream. Our former lead pastor had a dream before he came here that he drove up to a church in a strip mall that had tons of fake plants.  When he came here to interview, he pulled up and guess what he found?  FAKE PLANTS!!  A little over a year ago, a friend of mine passed away suddenly.  One night I had a dream that he came to me and asked me to tell his wife not to forget to let his old buddy Paul that he had passed away.  I waited two days before calling her to tell her, because I didn’t want to add to her grief, and I didn’t want to sound like a crazy person.  But I finally did. She didn’t know the name, but said she’d think on it.  A couple of days later, she called me all excited and realized who I was talking about.  It was an old army friend of his who was traveling around the world.  She got in touch with him to let him know Tim had passed.  Crazy, huh?  I believe the Holy Spirit somehow allowed me to have that dream.  The Bible has many stories of God using dreams to speak to people.  Sometimes God speaks to us in the most unexpected of ways.  Sometimes as we are waiting, we miss what God is doing right in front of us because we are expecting something different, but it doesn’t mean God didn’t show up.  Sometimes it’s a dream, sometimes it’s through the Scriptures, sometimes it’s through the wise words of a godly friend.  God with us means God is ALWAYS speaking, but sometimes in completely unexpected ways.   Listen, a whole nation missed the birth of the Messiah and the reality of God with them, because they were looking for a king who would overthrow Rome.

Let’s see what happened when Joseph woke up.  Verse 24—When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.  So Joseph had a plan, it was interrupted, an angel met with him and redirected him.  And then we see that Joseph did exactly what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and, out of love,  took Mary home as his wife.  But he didn’t sleep with her until she gave birth to Jesus.  In the ancient near east, it was frowned upon to have sexual relations while a woman was pregnant.  So even after all of this, even after the assurance that this was all from the Holy Spirit, Joseph went above and beyond to honor Mary, which again, I think is a picture of the grace, mercy, and love of God towards all of us as well.

So I want to leave us with three observations from this text.  (1) God saves us and God is with us.  Even if life is going really well for you right now, think on those words.  That’s why we follow Jesus, that is the good news, the heart of the gospel.  God saves and God is with us.  (2) God’s redirection is always for the best. It might not feel like it right now.  It might feel scary. I don’t know why Jesus hasn’t returned yet.  I wish I could tell you.  But I can tell you that his plan is perfect.  (3)  Joseph shows us how to be faithful to the Scriptures but filled with grace and mercy.  Joseph was a man of the book, but he also had the heart of Jesus, the heart of God, and he treated her with dignity, respect, and mercy, and that is the way God treats all of us too.

So as we get ready to turn the page into Christmas, we get to see some behind the scenes of Joseph trying to do the right thing and then hearing from God along the way.  We also get to see that the birth of Jesus was messy.   I want to encourage all of us to look expectantly towards this Jesus we proclaim, to wait for Him, to allow Him to redirect us as we go in our journey, and to trust that He HAS and WILL do great things for us, in us, and through us.  Maybe for you, you need to embrace that GOD SAVES and GOD IS WITH YOU.  Maybe you need to accept God’s redirection and stop resisting.  Maybe you need to show grace and mercy to someone you’ve been only expressing truth to.  Let’s pray.

Jesus, I am thrilled that in two days we get to make much of your name.  I’m so thrilled, too, that in the waiting You are with us, that you save.  Lord, for those today, who just need to hear from you, would you speak to them clearly.  Lord, would you help us to embrace that you save and that you’re with us, to experience you fully in this season.  Lord, for those who are struggling to be redirected, would you help us to just stop resisting and trying to control everything.  Lord, for those of us who are really keen on sharing truth, but not mercy and grace, would you redirect us to let the fruit of the Spirit flow in and through us.  We pray for your mercy, your grace, and your truth.  We’re excited to worship you, great, great King.  We ask this in the strong powerful name of Jesus and together this church said….Amen.

Advent | Embrace Immanuel | Matthew 1:18-25 | Week 42020-08-20T18:42:09-06:00

Advent | Rejoice In Messiah | Matthew 11:2-11 | Week 3

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 ADVENT: Rejoice in Messiah      Matthew 11:2-11      Pastor Dan Elliott  (2nd Service)

We’re in the third Sunday of Advent.  I’ve got to tell you, I’m a big Christmas guy.   As you can tell, I’ve been a pastor for a long time and it seems like whenever we come to the Advent season, I thought I was preaching Advent sermons, but I was really preaching Christmas sermons four times.  Advent is a series of four weeks preparing ourselves for Christmas, yes, but it had a much broader perspective.  It was looking forward to the Coming.  Back in the day when they depended on agriculture, the harvest would have been taken in, but they would wonder if they’d taken in enough harvest to last them until Spring.  So there was a sense of uncertainty, a little bit of tension.  The early church instituted this season of Advent as a time for people to reflect as the days got shorter, and shorter, and shorter.  To reflect that there is a Coming of One who has light that would bring more and more and more.  There is hope that we have.  So, we come to this third week of Advent.  The days are going to get shorter.  It’s cold out.  This is Advent.  Welcome to Advent.

As we look at this passage in Matthew, I’m asking God to make it come alive for you.  He’s made it come alive for me and I don’t want to get in the way of making it alive for you.  Let’s bow our heads in a word of prayer and ask God to enlighten us.  Let’s pray.  Father, I thank you.  I thank you that you’re here.  I thank you that you’re here and this is your Word—you’ve revealed yourself to us in this Word.  You want us to understand it.  You want us to wrestle with it.  Lord, make it come alive to us.  Jesus, thank you so much.  Thank you so much that you entered our world, that you made all of this possible.  Thank you, Spirit, that you are here right now to empower this Word to become real to us.  Lord, may the words that I say not get in the way of your work.  Thank you, God.  I pray this in Jesus’s name.  Amen.

I want to share about…..it’s probably the weirdest auction I’ve ever heard of.  It’s something that happened in 1926.  There was an auction at the U.S. Patent Office.  It was called the Great Patent Auction of 1926.  The Patent Office was opened in 1836 as “a general repository of all the inventions and improvements in machinery and manufactures, of which our country can claim the honor.”  When it opened 1836, they immediately began to get overwhelmed for patents on these ideas and inventions.  Forty thousand a year!  After about 15-20 years of that, the Patent Office wanted to slow it down.  There were a lot of harebrained ideas that once they got the patent they couldn’t get it to work.  They said, “We’ve got to have a model of what you’re going to invent.  When you give your idea, there’s got to be a model with it.”  They put that in about the 1860s, and people started bombarding this office with more and more models until they ran out of room.  Thousands and thousands……again, there were 30-40 thousand a year of these models.  Finally, about 1890, they said, “Let’s stop the model business, we don’t have anymore room.”  They stopped it, but they still had all these models, so, thirty years later, 1926, they came up with the idea of auctioning off all of the models.  Here’s a picture of a man standing at a table with all these small models.  This is only a fraction of them, because the auction was comprised of 150,000 models and it took six years to auction all of them off!  There was a metal illuminated cat that was suppose to rid your house of mice.  There was a device to solve your snoring problem—it looked like a trumpet that curved over the ear to the snorer’s mouth.  He or she would wake themselves up!  There were all of these whacky little models.

When you step back and look at this thing—150,000 models of things that never made it through the patent office process.  150,000 broken dreams.  150,000 disappointed ideas.  I say that with some first-hand experienced.  Not that I was born in 1926, but let me show you something.  This is a little device I came up with ten years ago.  I thought, “Man, this is going revolutionize exercise!”   I called this the “walk gym.”  I envisioned people, during lunch hour, going out walking and exercising both their upper and their lower and I thought, “This is the cat’s meow!”  I had our whole retirement planned based upon the ‘walk gym.’  Someone suggested, “Dan, before you go too far, you’d better talk to a patent lawyer.”  So I checked into some patent lawyers and found out they are very expensive.  Then I found a friend who had a friend who was a patent lawyer so he set us up.  About five days later he called me and said, “Dan, no! I’m afraid this would never make it through the patent process.  You’re copying too many inventions already.”  I have to admit, he saved me from probably bankruptcy.  I experienced a good amount of disappointment, because I was thinking this thing was really good—I still have it hanging in my garage.  Silly but I still walk with it once in a while.

Anyway, these things pale by the disappointments we’re going to see today.  What we’re going to look at today is a man who had given himself to a purpose, so fully, so intensely, and then he found himself at a loss in his expectations, wondering, “Is this ever going to be the right thing?”  We see in Matthew 11:2-3 — When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

This is not John the Apostle, this is John the Baptist, who Larry talked about last week.  This was the man who was so fervent and strong in his proclamation.  This was the man who realized, “I’ve come to prepare the way for the Messiah.”  This is the man, when he saw Jesus coming, said, “This is the Lamb of God.”  This is the man, when it came to baptizing Him, said, “No, I’m not worthy to baptize you, you need to baptize me.”  This is the man who said to his own disciples, “That’s the man you need to follow; go after Jesus.”  And now, he’s coming back and asking, “Are you really the One?”  I wondered, where are we going to go with this?  Yet I had to realize, wow!  This is not really profound—Doubt — Don’t be discouraged, if it happened to John the Baptist, it’ll probably happen to us!

As I reflected on that statement, I probably shouldn’t put it in the future tense.  It probably HAS happened to us.  I think that every one of us in this room that has been walking with Jesus Christ have had times of disappointment.  Times of questioning.  Times of doubting.  I want to tell you, that is okay!  Your faith is not going to get shipwrecked by asking questions.  God is not going to turn his back on you simply because you’re expressing some doubts about Him.  I would tell you that when you’re questioning, and doubting, and wrestling, and struggling, God knows you’re doing that, so talk to Him about it.  Don’t let the doubts fester within you.

I think, in the church, we haven’t done the best job of giving each other the freedom of being able to wrestle, to be able to question, to be able to struggle sometimes in our faith.  I have a good, good friend who, about eight years ago, went through an intense struggle.  At the time I said he was going through a crisis of his faith.  His wife had a debilitating disease.  There were a number of folks close to him that had passed away.  It was a hard time in his life.  He wrestled, he struggled, he asked a lot of questions.  I wondered if he was ever going to come around.  But you know what?  Now I wouldn’t call it a crisis of his faith, I would say it’s a refinement of his faith.  I believe that as we our honest enough to admit our questions, our struggles, our doubts, God comes to us and helps us to grow in the midst of that.

So back to John — When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”   There’s two things that jump out at me right there.  One is he’s in prison.  Prison will do a job on your perspective.  The other thing is he heard the deeds of the Messiah.  Will touch base on that later.  John is in prison.  I was kind of surprised.  Yes, it doesn’t tell us what prison he was put in.  But there was a historian, Josephus, who said John was in a prison called Machaerus.  It’s east of the Dead Sea and it was a ‘summer palace’ built by Herod the Great.  After Herod the Great died, he gave his palaces to his sons, and this one went to Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas had the hots for his sister-in-law and he stole his brother’s wife.  John had the audacity to speak out against that, in public, and so he was imprisoned.  We first read about this imprisonment in Matthew 4.  It came shortly after—in fact, it might have come during the time Jesus was being tempted for forty days in the wilderness.  When you think about that….He’d been baptized by John and then it says immediately he was taken out to the wilderness for forty days.  Then when he came back, he heard that John had been imprisoned, so Jesus went north to the Galilean area where it was safer.  I had no idea John was imprisoned that close to the time of Jesus’s baptism.

So hear was John, sending this message from this edifice.  They’ve done a lot of excavating and found a lot of ruins, but they went down to the bottom of the mountain and they found a dungeon.  You walk through the door and it goes off to more rooms where people were imprisoned.  I don’t see a lot of windows!  I can’t imagine staying in the dark in the dungeon.  It tells us that while John was there he heard about all the deeds of the Messiah.  That means his disciples must have been allowed to visit him while he was imprisoned in that dungeon.

I went back through Matthew and went through Matthew 4, after he was imprisoned, and tried to see what were the things Jesus did.  He goes up into Galilee and teaches.  Then it says he healed all kinds of diseases. (Mt. 4:23)  In chapters 5, 6, and 7, you have the Sermon on the Mount, which a number of people believe is a template for what Jesus preached in many different places.  Then you come to chapter 8.  He healed a person of leprosy.  He healed a person of paralysis and reshaped their leg so they could walk again.  He exorcised a person of demons.  He calmed a storm.  That’s a huge one, I think.  I believe all of that was reported to John.  Chapter 9 — There was a paralytic that he healed.  He raised a girl from the dead.  He cleansed a person of blindness and leprosy.

I believe all those things were reported back to John, so I asked the question, “John, that’s a good resumé.  Why the questions?  Why the doubts?”  He still sent that question, “Are you the one to come or shall we expect someone else?”  I went back to Matthew 3:7-12, and let me remind you what John was preaching.  Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. … Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  … The ax is already at the root of the trees.  Every tree that does not produce good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. …. Someone’s coming after me who is so powerful I can’t carry his sandals, but he’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. …. His winnowing fork is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn, burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.  That’s the message John had been preaching months and months in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, who he recognized as Jesus.  Then he hears what Jesus is doing.  Doesn’t hear a lot about winnowing forks.  He hears about healing.  He hears about forgiveness.  He hears about mercy.  John’s disciples go to Jesus and say, “How come you guys don’t fast like the rest of us do?”  I bet you when they went, they might have heard this statement:  I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  That’s an expectation that I don’t think John had.  I don’t think Jesus quite fit what John anticipated he was suppose to do. Often our expectations of how God should work can cause us to miss the work He’s actually doing.

As I wrote that I was trying to think, okay, what in my life….because when you preach you’re suppose to have an illustration.  Frankly, as I was trying to think and process I went, hey, Kerry and I have had a pretty good life.  I can’t complain about anything.  I asked Kerry if she could think of any expectations we had of God that may have caused us to kind of miss what He was doing.  She said, “I can’t believe you’re even asking that question! Dan, don’t you remember?  We wanted to have kids.  We thought God was going to give us children.”  Instead, we got cancer.  That shot me back to thirty years ago.  When we got married, we had all the dreams of many young married couples.  We thought we’d have kids to pour our lives into, and nurture them, and watch them grow.  We thought they’d grow and have kids and we’d be grandparents.  We looks so forward to that.  Then we discovered the word ‘infertility.’  We were trying one thing after another after another—different fertility drugs.  All of a sudden, Kerry gets diagnosed with cancer.  Now we were in a fight for her life.  I can remember nights going to God and saying, “Are you for real?”  When I asked that, it wasn’t so much questioning the realness of God, it was questioning the type of God I expected him to be.  I found myself saying, “I’m not sure if you’re so good.”  I’m not sure if you’re so loving, because this is hard.  I didn’t expect this.  Those expectations that many times we camp on for God cause us to miss the work that He’s actually doing.

John sends the disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”  There’s another thing that pops out to me in that verse.  John sends his disciples to Jesus.  He was stuck in that dungeon, yes.  He had to take second-hand reports, but John did not sit on his unfulfilled expectations, but he brought them about before God, before Jesus.  He went to the source of his frustration.  He asks Jesus directly.  I would encourage us to do that.  Like I said earlier, God already knows that we’ve got the questions.  God already knows that we may be wrestling with doubt.  He already knows that we’re wrestling with disappointment.  Probably He’s waiting for us to have the courage to come to Him and explain that to Him.   You might think that’s crazy if He already knows it, but He wants to hear from his children.  He’s not going to abandon you.  Just like Jesus did not abandon John.  Jesus instead says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”   All those things I found in earlier chapters of Matthew…that’s what Jesus is saying.  Tell John those things.  Report back to John that.

One observation I make of that — John asked the question, “Are you the Messiah?”  Jesus never answered him.  Jesus never said “Yes” or “No.”  Instead He gave him evidence and told John to figure it out.  John would have to decide where he stood with Jesus.  Jesus says the same thing to us:  Where do we stand with Jesus?  I believe that as John received this message:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear…    I believe that might have jogged in John’s mind a little bit as he though back to a referenced in the Old Testament to a prophet named Isaiah who said some very similar things about the Messianic time that was coming, the kingdom that was going to come (Isaiah 35:5-6).  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.  Sounds very similar to what Jesus is doing.  We may say, “John, why didn’t you catch on?”  Well, let’s look at the verse right before this (Isaiah 35:4) — Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”

As John reads those verses, he’s probably thinking, “Come on, it talks about vengeance.  It talks about retribution.  I’m stuck in a dungeon because I spoke up about that.  I spoke up about the king’s unrighteousness and now I’m stuck in a dungeon.”  You know what?  There’s many times we feel we’re in a dungeon.  There’s many times we feel we’re stuck.  I identify with this.  I love being a pastor, don’t get me wrong.  There are some days you just want to throw out.  There are some days…..at the end of the day you’re exhausted.  There was a day, recently, that began with a request from someone.  It broke my heart because their infant had been born so very prematurely, and it was a daily struggle to keep this guy alive.  Then there was a message that a friend was diagnosed with cancer.  Then there was a benevolence case that ate away at me as I tried to work on this and solve this and I was so frustrated that we could not come to grips and correct this.  Then there was someone who had to be rushed into emergency surgery and wanted to have prayer.  I wanted all those things fixed.  I so much wanted to be able to say, “Hey, I can correct that because God’s here.”  I’ve been on lots of healing sessions.  I don’t mean to say I don’t believe in healing….I do!  I tell you, the majority of those healing sessions haven’t healed.  Maybe there’s something wrong with my faith? I think it’s more the reality of where we live now.

I think John’s expectations of Jesus….he was expecting this wide, wide repentance and brokenness that was going to cover the land.  I think my expectations of Jesus, many times, is He’s going to solve all the problems.  I think sometimes if we expect only the exceptional, we will miss the miracles of everyday.  The kingdom that God has established has entered the life of each and every one of us in an everyday way.  I would even say in the mundane, because I think there’s many miracles in the mundane.

Kerry and I still don’t have kids.  God may still do some ‘Abraham and Sarah’ thing—that would be exceptional.  I’m not expecting it.  But if I camped in that, I would miss what God has done the last thirty years of our lives.  I’ve seen a miracle happening in my wife….and myself, but I think especially in Kerry.  Yes, we still grieve the fact that we don’t have kids.  We grieve the fact that we’ll never have grandkids.  But you know what?  It forces us to evaluate what our lives are going to be about.  As Kerry wrestled with that, she said, “Well, I want to pass on a legacy to kids.”  That revolutionized her teaching.  She became one of the best elementary school teachers I have ever seen.  I used to love to watch her working with the kids in her classroom.  She brought hope and structure and all kinds of wisdom into their lives.  I loved it!  I don’t know if that would have necessarily happened if we were totally focused on the kids we expected God to give us.  He had other plans for us.  People have told me I’ve got a lot of kids.  Ehh!  Kerry had 25 a year, I don’t know if I’ve had that many.  But I had to realize, I have been able to influence people, and for that, I’m grateful.  I think many times we expect that the Kingdom of God comes into this setting and is going to come in with exceptional power and is going to correct all the wrongs, and yet, we wrestle with the fact that I still struggle with anxiety.  I still have fears about the future.  I have friends who are still blind.  People who are getting older and won’t be raised from the dead.  That brings me to rest in the fact of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus said he ushered in.

There’s a theologian—I remember this from seminary—who said, “The Kingdom of God is here, it’s now, it’s already, but it’s not yet.”  By that he meant yes, the influence of the kingdom is here, but the fullness of the kingdom is not here yet.  I had a very good friend explain this—The kingdom influence is right here and now, but the day is going to come when the kingdom will have no more competition, and it will have all the freedom just to flow.  The power Jesus talked about is going to be so real.  The power’s here now, but we’re in a broken world.

Jesus goes on to say—Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.   A loose paraphrase may be—Blessed is the one who believes in me in spite of what he expected me to be like.  I don’t think He’s saying this word to John, necessarily.  It could be a challenge to John, but I think it’s a challenge to all that crowd that’s around Him.  What are you going to do with me?  I think it’s a challenge to all of us who are sitting here today.  What are we going to do with Jesus?

Jesus goes on to talk about John a little bit.  He says to this crowd, “What did you go out to hear when you went out in the wilderness?  Did you go out to see a blade of reed grass waving in the wind?”  (Matt. 11:7-11)  It was interesting reading about this reed grass.  Jesus was up in the Galilean area; I read that hillsides of reed grass are there in Galilee.  When the wind blows, they all go the same way.  They’re all blown by the wind.  It’s kind of like the picture of a teacher who’s teaching whatever’s popular at the moment; whatever’s going to tickle the ears of the people.  Did you go out into the wilderness to hear John just tickle your ears?  No, you didn’t.  It’s a rhetorical question.  Did you go out to see a man dressed in fine clothes?  Well, you didn’t find him, because he had camel  skin.  No, fine clothes are found in the royal palaces.  John’s in a royal palace but he’s in the dungeon of that palace.  No, you didn’t go there to see somebody with sophistication.  No.  Did you go to see a prophet?  Yes, and guess what?  We haven’t had a prophet in 400 years, and you went to hear the prophet that God has risen.  And he’s not a prophet like any other prophets.  He surpasses all the prophets.  John was the one who was coming to prepare the way for the Messiah.  John’s the one who’s coming to announce His coming.  John is unique.  John is the greatest of all prophets.  As far as men born of women, John is the best.

I believe, as I picture John in that dungeon, as I see him wrestling with the answer Jesus sent to him, as I see him going back to revisit that passage in Isaiah, I see him going down farther into that passage and he comes to this phrase:  And a highway will be there……but only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return.  They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.  Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:8,10)  I read those verses and it’s so easy for me to say, oh, that’s something in the future.  But Jesus said no, the kingdom is now.  Those verses I’m reading are NOW!  We come to this place….singing….in God’s presence.  I love how Aaron leads us in worship, but that’s because of Jesus Christ.  He opened the way so we could worship in His presence.  We come with everlasting joy crowning our heads.  Did you know everyone of you that’s given your life to Jesus Christ is an eternal being right now?!  Yeah, you’re in a body that’s dying, some of us more so than others, but you’re an eternal being, everlasting joy is upon your head.  Gladness and joy will overtake, sorrow and sighing will flee away.  I know that we will have sorrow.  I know there are going to be days we sigh, but let me tell you, Jesus promises us it’s going to flee….eventually it’s going to go away.  There’s hope.  There’s joy.  Because of this man Jesus.  Blessed is the one who believes in me in spite of what he expected me to be like.

There’s one last thing Jesus said when he was talking to this crowd and that’s these words:  Whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he .   And Jesus just said John’s the greatest of any man that was born of women, but then he says he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.  Yeah, the kingdom does not erase the problems, the issues, that we face, but I’ll tell you something, I believe very much that when John received that word, we know he wasn’t freed from prison, but I believe he was freed IN prison.  He was freed in a way that he could face whatever they threw at him….and that was execution.  I believe that the kingdom of God enters into our world and frees us within the circumstances we find ourselves.

That word ‘blessed’—Blessed is the man who does not stumble on account of me.  Makarios means it has the internal strength, that gladness, that joy, that circumstances can’t change, that we have for eternity crowning our heads with joy.  That takes me back to a verse that’s very popular right now, a verse that’s attributed to an angel talking to some shepherds on a hill  —-  Do not be afraid! I bring good news of great joy that will be for all people! (Luke 2:10)   It doesn’t mean you have to have your act together.  It doesn’t mean you have to have all your doubts and questions taken care of.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t have disappointments again.  It means that we will walk in the joy and the strength of knowing that Jesus is the one who has made the difference, and he asks us today, “What are you going to do with Me?”  Will I be your Savior, your Messiah or are you going to look for somebody else?  You know what?  John wrestled with that; I think it’s a good wrestle.

Let’s all stand and sing “Joy to the world the Lord has come.”  Jesus is here!  We’ve got an everlasting crown of glory on our heads.

Advent | Rejoice In Messiah | Matthew 11:2-11 | Week 32020-08-20T18:41:11-06:00

Advent | Turn Toward Peace | Matthew 3:1-12 | Week 2

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Advent | Turn Toward Peace | Matthew 3:1-12 | Week 22020-08-20T18:40:17-06:00

Advent | Wake Up to Hope | Matthew 24:36-44 | Week 1

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ADVENT: Wake Up to Hope   Matthew 24:36-44  Pastor Larry Boatright   (2nd Service)

{Manuscript–View video for complete content}   Hello, everyone.  My name is Larry Boatright, and I’m one of the pastors here. So glad to see you all!  Wow. That’s a festive passage of scripture, isn’t it! Sure puts me in the Christmas spirit.  I’ll concede that it’s a strange, ominous passage.  Who’s with me?  You might be wondering, “Uh, it’s December. We sang Christmas carols today. It’s Christmas time.  Why are we starting an Advent series with a passage that looks like the end of the world?” I’m so glad you’re wondering that too!

Now, maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the church calendar.  I didn’t, but someone introduced me to it a number of years ago, and it had a massive impact on my formation.  The church calendar has been around for centuries, and the practice of following a specific text during a specific season has its roots deep in Old Testament history.  In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus, when He got up in the synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah, was reading the prescribed text of the day, which just so “happened” to be about Him!

It’s not just a logistical exercise, it’s a powerful tool for formation, because the church calendar immerses the church into the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  It slows us down from the chaos of life to actually journey with Jesus in an intimate way.  This passage is one of the four prescribed readings in what is called the Lectionary, which is sort of a Bible reading plan that follows the church calendar. What’s neat is that millions of Christians around the world are reading these exact same passages today!

The church calendar begins with Advent, which really is all about living in that space, not just looking towards Christmas.  It’s actually looking toward the return of Christ. The term literally means “arrival.”  It’s looking for the arrival.  We find ourselves sandwiched between that first arrival—the incarnation, which we’ll celebrate in a few weeks—but also the looking and the waiting for Jesus to come.  In fact,  Advent is the beginning of the Church year.  You didn’t know it was New Years, did you?  Turn to someone near you and say, “Happy New Year!”

After that, we move into Christmas, which, in just a few short weeks, we’ll honor and celebrate the incarnation of Jesus. Then we move from that into the season of Epiphany, which starts in January, and journeys through the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry on earth.  After that, churches historically follow Lent, which is a season of reflection, repentance, and groaning for the resurrection. And then Easter, which is that glorious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that event which causes us to have HOPE.  I was really excited about the Lectionary guiding our Advent journey this December. It’s my favorite time of year and I love getting back into that rhythm of observing the calendar.  I was really excited until I read the gospel passage I was supposed to be teaching on this week, and I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want to talk about THAT!”  Seriously, though, one of the things that I love about the Lectionary is that it forces us to engage even the difficult texts.  And I’d say this is one of those difficult texts.

So to get the gist of what’s going on here, let’s take a step back and get some context. Jesus had been teaching in and around Jerusalem, and He and His disciples were walking away from the temple, and His disciples asked Him what He thought of the temple buildings.  He started using this cryptic language, saying that everything they see (the temple and surrounding buildings) would be turned to rubble. And He didn’t really explain what He meant.  So it really bothered the disciples, and later, they come to Him and say this:  As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, they came to Him privately. The disciples said,  “We don’t understand your predictions. Tell us, when will these things happen: When will the temple be destroyed? What will be the sign that You are returning? How will we know that the end of the age is upon us?”

So they ask him a two-pronged question:  1. When will the temple be destroyed?  2. What will be the sign that you’re returning?  So verses 4-35 are Him basically talking about what the next era was going to be like.  Kind of like what the next season was going to be like; how to know the basic signs of the coming era.  But then he gets really specific in the verses we read today.  Because the disciples had basically asked, “When are you coming back, and how will we know exactly what day you’re coming back?”  Pretty easy stuff, right?

I have to be honest, this text is not an easy one.  Scholars have argued, for almost 2,000 years, what this text is all about.   Most of us read this and think it has something to do with the end of the world.  Throughout the years, the Church has wrestled with a number of different ways to interpret it.  Some think it’s metaphor.  Some think it’s talking about when Jesus returns to the earth.  Some interpret this to be talking about this thing called a rapture, where Jesus will snatch everyone who follows Him out of the earth, and everyone else has been left behind.  Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty popular theory, but the early church fathers didn’t believe that.  It didn’t come around until the 19th century.  It’s a pretty recent phenomenon.  Entire book series and movies and scary youth group films were generated from this way of looking at this text.  I remember watching a film when I was in youth group about “the Rapture” and when people were snatched out, their clothes were neatly folded.  I’m saying, their shoes were laid out, and their wallet and keys and jewelry were in there, and then their jeans were folded and their shirt was folded on top of that.  One guy was on a ladder and when his buddy turned to see what was going on, he saw the guy’s clothes neatly folded…ON THE LADDER!!

Culture has been fascinated with this approach.  Books have been written, t-shirts printed, and all that sort of stuff.  We shouldn’t really be surprised, because people have been fascinated by the “end of the world” since humans have been on the planet.  Even 2,000 years ago, people were fascinated with the end of time.  When Jesus said this stuff, his disciples were like, “Let’s go back to that. What’s it’s going to be like?”  People have all these different ideas what it looks like.  There’s a ton of speculation. For example, there was this guy in 44 A.D. who thought he was the messiah and would be ushering in the end of the world. And so he rallied 400 followers to go with him out into the desert.  Turns out, he was right. It was the end of the world for him, because the Roman Army showed up and wiped out him and his followers.  Or what about Harold Camping?  This is the guy who had a radio ministry and a few years ago was insistent that Jesus would come back on a certain date.  Spoiler Alert: Jesus didn’t come back on the day he predicted.  So he got back on the radio, and said he had “miscalculated” and was off by seven months, and to donate to his ministry.  Guess what?  Jesus didn’t come back seven months later.  I guess he should have bought a better calculator with the money people were donating.   And what’s crazy is people still follow some of these guys and their predictions!  Back in 2012, some researchers found that the Mayan calendar ran out in December.  Remember the uproar over this?  The calendar ended on a certain date in 2012, so people thought that must mean it’s the end of time.  Could it be that they just ran out of paper or stone or whatever it may have been?

But the thing is, people have gone to great lengths to find out when exactly Jesus was coming back so they can be ready.  They’ve made all kinds of flowcharts and spreadsheets and taught seminars and got ultra nerdy.  And so, back to the passage. We find ourselves here, nearly 2,000 years later, faced with the task of looking at a text like this and asking, “What in the world does this mean?”  “What in the world does it mean for us, today?”

But we can go back to what the disciples asked to find out what they had in mind when they were talking to Jesus.  The disciples said, “We don’t understand Your predictions. Tell us, when will these things happen: When will the temple be destroyed?  What will be the sign that You are returning? How will we know that the end of the age is upon us?  So the disciples were pretty unnerved by what Jesus said and saying, “We don’t understand everything you’ve said, and we want to know what’s going to happen someday, and we don’t know what it will look like or exactly when or…”  This is not too different than us, is it?  We like to have things figured out.  I like to know what’s next.   Have you ever sat with someone who is having a freak-out about something because they don’t know how to process it, and they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they worried about every possible doomsday scenario?  Do you ever want to just put your hand up and say, “Stop!” This is kind of what Jesus does here.  Jesus patiently listens to their question, and then uses a handful of word pictures to help them see something very important. He used a word picture like the days of Noah. People are going to be eating, drinking, carrying on.  Two women—They’re at a mill making corn meal or flour and one disappears. The two men are walking up a hill and one disappears.  We think of rapture as Jesus snatching us out, but a flood is bad.  Have you ever thought about that?  When you read about Noah and a flood came and took them away.  If we’re going to use that metaphor, it doesn’t make sense because the flood is bad.  The people that are taken away…it’s kind of confusing.

Jesus is basically trying to say that you’ll be doing ordinary, everyday, average things.  When you do those things, you should live with an awareness of Me.  You should be watching vigilantly for Me.  It sounds a little bit scary.  It’s a lot to try to figure out.  We try to figure it out and get so focused on HOW it’s going to happen. Like, what kind of cloud is Jesus going to be riding when he comes down?   Is this literal?  Will He be wearing a robe or a snuggie or what’s happening when Jesus comes back?  We dig into the Greek nuance of the words to try to predict something that will happen in the future. We want to know all there is to know about that thing that will happen in the future.

But I think the answer to this passage is pretty simple, really.  Jesus says something to His disciples that I think carries over to us today.  He basically says, “Don’t worry about when I’m coming back or exactly how I’ll do it.”  See, Jesus was aware of how we as humans like to have everything figured out and think through every little detail and obsess over the future.  So Jesus squashes all of that and cuts right through the mess and in verse 36 He tells us all that no one knows the day or the hour. After much study, prayer, and consulting with the very best commentaries, and after four years of seminary, and two master’s degrees in theology, we can deduce this from this passage:  Something WILL happen SOMEDAY.   I’ll say it again:  Something WILL happen SOMEDAY.  Aren’t you impressed?

But that’s not even what this text is all about.  Jesus is basically saying, “You’re missing the entire point. You’re so focused on this thing that you hope will happen someday that you’re missing being awake and ready to embrace the kingdom that’s bursting forth right now.”  Now THAT is extremely relevant to where we find ourselves at this point in history.  You see, for most of us, December is a crazy, busy month filled with parties, and shopping, and organizing things, and meetings, and on and on it goes.  And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I plow through this month and sing the songs and go to the parties and all of that, and think so much about what is to come that I miss the beauty of what is right in front of me.  Time with my kids.  Thinking about things other than me, me, me.  Or, as a pastor, I’m teaching a lot this month, and one of the things I’m afraid of is what if I get to the end of this month and I talked a lot ABOUT Jesus, but I didn’t really spend time WITH Jesus.

See, this has a lot more to do with how we live our lives right now, awaiting the Advent, than it does with what will happen someday.  Jesus wasn’t saying, “Nerds unite: let me give you some homework. Go research like crazy and tear my words apart.”  He’s saying, “Be a light in this season when darkness is trying push the light back. You are the light of the world.  BE the light as you go about your ordinary, average life.”  Jesus is saying it’s all too easy to be focused on stuff, and figuring things out, and worrying about someday, and that instead of being concerned about what’s going to happen 10 years from now or 50 years from now or 2,000 years from now, we should take the opportunity be watchful and awake right now.  Advent is about sitting in the tension of waiting for when He returns to make right all the things the enemy and the forces of darkness have made wrong.   It’s about going about our business with an increasing awareness of His presence in all aspects of our lives.  He wants us to wake up and experience life right now filled with hope, not filled with dread at what will happen at some undetermined point in the future. To work and to play, and to live and be married, and to eat and drink, and to sleep.  But to do it all with an awareness of Him, with a watchful eye toward the sacred— that really, everything is sacred.  And to move beyond that as we experience that unhurried pace of life this month.  As we experience the joy that comes from knowing that God’s got this.  As we experience the peace that can only come from Christ, that we can show an unbelieving, frenetic, anxious world what hope in Jesus and the peace of Christ look like.

It’s really interesting that this is where the church finds herself permanently planted in a season of waiting, in a season of  Advent.  Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, wrote, “What other time of season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent.”  He called it “the time in between.”  Basically, we’re stuck in Advent; we’re waiting.  We’re still longing.  We’re still groaning for the return of Christ.  That’s what Advent’s about, it’s not just buying presents for people and looking forward to singing Christmas carols.  It’s the awareness of the presence of Christ now and the longing for incarnational presence of Christ when He comes again.

Fear is big money in the culture we live in.  People use it to sell things, that use it to rally you to their political persuasion on either side of the aisle.  They use it to force you to move into some things, and that’s what the rapture movies attempted to do.  They didn’t produce lasting fruit, because fear doesn’t do that.  When we follow Jesus, we have peace.  Jesus invites us to step into Advent and live counter-culturally, going about our business and embracing this season with peace, joy, and hope, and extending that hope to others who desperately need it.  For most of us, this season isn’t like that at all.

A poll by the American Psychological Association showed that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time,” 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money,” and 51 percent are stressed out about the “pressure to give or get gifts.” This stress often leads to symptoms like headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, low job satisfaction and morale, aching muscles (including lower back pain), loss of appetite, changes in behavior while at work, and a decline in productivity and work performance.  That’s what a lot of people said they experienced this time of year.  I don’t think that’s what Advent is supposed to be about.

I also, realistically, know that December can be a pretty tough time for a lot of people. There are some people who are experiencing their first Christmas without a loved one.  This might be a Christmas where you lost your job and you struggle to provide for your kids. I think for all of us, not just in December, but in life things are tough sometimes and we find ourselves groaning and longing for Jesus to come back and make what is broken whole again.  That’s what Advent is all about.  It’s about being awake to the fact that all that stuff’s happening.  There may be fear or there may be hardship, or maybe just having our heads in the clouds waiting for someday, holed up in a cave waiting for Jesus to return and withdrawn for life.  But Advent is about being awake to what God is up to right now as we longingly wait for Him to do what He said he would do.  So, the bottom line of this passage is this:  Something will happen someday….but Jesus wants to meet us right now, in this season.

As I mentioned earlier, there are four readings, and I want to look at two of those because they’re designed to work together. I want to look at Romans 13:11-14 to sort of expand our idea of what Advent looks like and what this passage means.    And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.   This month invites us to lots of desires of the flesh.  This month invites us to fall in line with everybody else and to do what everybody else does, but this passage tells us to put on clothes of Christ, clothe yourself with Jesus.  Jesus was unhurried. He wasn’t worried.  Imagine if December was like that for you.  Who would be excited about a month that was unhurried and not worried?  I think all of us.  That’s what the Scriptures invite us to do, to live as awake people, filled with hope and not despair.

It goes on to tell us some harsh things there on how to live in the light of Christ.  Not to give over to the things, culturally, that are trying to entice us, but to put on the clothing of Christ in a way that honors Jesus.  And groaning with anticipation of the future return of Jesus, but filled with joy and hope today.  See, we don’t have to live as people who have no hope, do we? The resurrection happened then and it’s happening now.  That cycle of life, death, burial, and resurrection is still happening.  Here’s the thing, we get to live as people who live under the kingship of the King of kings, who will have the last word.

Let me tell you what that last word is.  This is from Isaiah 2:1-5 — The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s temple shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and  arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

That’s a pretty beautiful picture of the end of the world.  We can trust that whenever it is, His plans are good and righteous and holy.  I look at the peace that this verse promises us, I get excited about and go, “Wait a second!”  If the King of kings is promising this and he’s got this under control, maybe I don’t have to live anxious today for what’s going to happen tomorrow, because He is the God of this world.  He owns this world.  He has all authority and power and all dominion over the forces of darkness.  Jesus, the light of Christ, is pushing back the darkness.  We don’t have to live in a month filled with darkness, because we live under the Sonship of the King of kings!     Paul writes in the Scripture from his letter to the Romans (13:12) — The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Listen, this month you have to make a conscious decision.  You can go on about your business and be a zombie and just go through the month of December and go, “Wow, that was crazy.”  You can do that.  If we don’t stop and make a conscious decision to stay awake, mindful of the presence of Christ in every situation we’re in, Macy’s and Wal-Mart and Amazon’s Cyber Monday and all those things will keep us mindlessly walking through the Christmas Season.

I don’t want to just say all that and say, “Have a good day.”  I want to give you a couple practical things you can do to be mindful and awake, filled with hope and joy in this season.   Here’s the first one:  Engage in a contemplative practice for this whole month.  A contemplative practice is the type of practice where you just slow down and you just really try to connect with the presence of Christ.  When Advent first began in the 4th century, it was seen as a time of fasting and repentance.  Similar to how many traditions celebrate “Lent.”  The idea had to do with reflecting on the first incarnation of Christ and second coming of Christ.  But slowing ourselves  down and cultivating a mindfulness about Jesus and what Jesus is up to in this moment, being watchful and waiting for him.  It might be hard today to imagine fasting in the month of December.   But it could be helpful to put some kind of practice in place that helps you not jump from Thanksgiving to Christmas too quickly.  I’m talking about practices you’ve heard us talking a lot about like prayer, meditating on Scripture, solitude—getting away and getting quiet.  Those sorts of things help us reframe our vision.  Those help us escape our prewritten patterns of busyness in this season.  They help us to stay present to the invisible.  Have you ever thought about the fact that when Mary was pregnant and Jesus was in the womb, He was present, but He was invisible.  The whole month of December, Jesus is in the womb….He’s coming but He’s not quite there, but He’s present and with us in the moment.   Those kind of practices help us to look beyond what we can physically see and reflect on God showing up in everyday circumstances.

Just to be clear, I’m not asking you to become a monk.  I’m just saying pick one thing you can practice the next four weeks.  Maybe it’s….I’m going to try journaling three times a week.  Maybe it’s sitting in silence for 15 minutes a day.  Maybe it’s reading Scripture in the middle of your day.  Maybe it’s reading the lectionary readings for each day of the week.  I’m going to ask you to just pause for a moment and ask yourself this question:  What is one practice you can embrace in this season to disrupt your typical pattern and walk more closely with Jesus?  That’s why we meet and have church, not just to hear me talk, but so you can practice living in the way of Jesus with the heart of Jesus.

The second thing you can do to help you stay awake is to practice gratitude.  Facebook can be a real pain sometimes, but the one day it gets a bit redemptive is on Thanksgiving.  It’s fun to flip through newsfeed and read statuses.  Giving thanks for the past and present sets us up to be hopeful for the future.  So, its really important that we remember our past and give thanks for it and learn to pause and give thanks as the day goes on.  This is why we gather and reflect on what God has done through prayer and worship.  Practicing gratitude can become a habit that can redeem each moment as it comes.  It allows us to escape from our pattern of self-concern and fear.  When we are tempted to start complaining about overcrowded airport terminals, or bossy family members, or kids that don’t appreciate the line you waited in on Black Friday, what if we practiced gratitude in those moments?  It can jerk us back to the reality that everything we have is a gift.  Our God delights in giving us experiences with nature and relationships and blessing us with small and big things, but, most importantly, with His presence.

So, I want to encourage you to set up a pattern for yourself to give thanks.  You might want to set a reminder on your phone to say every morning at this time and every night at this time practice gratitude.  Just take 30 seconds and get quiet and then thank God.  Maybe you write the word “thanks” on a napkin and tape it to your dashboard.  Start a habit with your kids before meals where you share one thing you were thankful for in the day.  Or maybe post on Facebook or instagram what you’re grateful for and ask others to share what they are grateful for as well.

And finally, another thing you can do to help wake up and live awake:  Think beyond yourself.  We expend an extraordinary amount of energy this time of year asking ‘me’ questions, don’t we?  What party will I go to?  Which family will I spend the holidays with?  What do I want for Christmas?  What should I give so-and-so… and will I spend the appropriate amount of money on it?  What should I eat?  What should I cook?  Identifying with others can help disrupt this hurried cycle, slow down, and wake us up to the reality of what others are experiencing in this season. Maybe you serve dinner at a homeless shelter.  Maybe you find a family who has just gone through a job loss and is struggling financially; maybe you adopt them for Christmas.  Maybe you volunteer at the Christmas Shoppe, or the Christmas Marketplace, or the posada that’s coming up.  Maybe you open up your home to those neighbors that just moved across the street from you.  Maybe you give someone your old laptop.  Maybe you listen to Uncle Joe’s story again and actually LISTEN to it.  Maybe you just sit with someone and be present with them.

Advent invites us to live in that tension between the resurrection, the ascension of Christ, and Jesus’s returning again.  It’s the time when he brings true Shalom.  It invites us to live with a conscious awareness of him in this season—no matter what our circumstances are. Three ways we can do that this month:  1.  Engage in a contemplative practice that reminds us of the presence of God.   2. Practice gratitude.  3. Be present with others as we think beyond ourselves.

As we move towards a close, I want you to know that the One who created all things is with you. If this is a hard season for you, I want you to know I’m really sorry.  It’s hard for a lot of people.  I want you to know that Jesus is not content to let you languish in your pain forever.  Jesus meets you. In Advent, He is waiting with us. He is groaning with us.  He is ever-present in our time of need.  He meets with us in the good and the bad and He will return again.

One of the tools our team has put together to help in this season is to put a formation guide inside the bulletin.  Every week it will have the four passages of the week, so you can chew on those.   It’s going to have helpful questions that you can journal through, you can ask in your small group, you can meet someone for coffee and talk about those things.  It has some practices you can engage in.  My prayer is that God would be with us in this season, however we find ourselves engaging in it.  As it’s busy, as it’s crazy, that we would somehow be unhurried and would remember that Advent is coming, but Jesus is with us right now.  Awake to His presence in ordinary, average moments; knowing that Jesus meets us in every season of our lives.

The band is going to share a real beautiful song that embodies the spirit and the heart of Advent.  I’m going to ask you to lean in and pay attention and then we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Table together.

Advent | Wake Up to Hope | Matthew 24:36-44 | Week 12020-08-20T18:39:12-06:00
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