The Christmas Story Continues

I was so careful this year. I really was. I thought a lot about each person in the Christmas story. I read about the census, the journey, the angelic visits, the dreams, the shepherds, the inn, the manger, the betrothed, the instructions, the swaddling clothes, the wise men, the star, the kingly gifts, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Herod, and of course Jesus. Heck, I even listened to Linus’ Christmas soliloquy on that famous animated stage. More than once. Covered my bases, soaked in it, and thought for sure I’d given the advent season its due.

20141226_084157I’m one of those people that takes the Christmas decorations down pretty much as soon as Christmas day is over. And sure enough this year I was true to form. With family still gathered around, I dismantled the mantle, I unlit our pre-lit tree, and I put every ornament back into its nice, neat, storage box; the one I’ll touch again just after Thanksgiving 2015. Call me scroogey. It’s okay. I’ll own it.

One of the last things I put away was our nativity scene. I really don’t know where this came from and I always faithfully overlook the fact that in these mass produced trinkets, the magi are always placed at the manger (something they historically never saw), but I’ve got to admit it: I like our nativity set.

Its got a nice Styrofoam tray that each piece of the nativity fits in. A few years ago I got the idea of labeling each compartment so as to speed up the clean up even more each year. But when I picked up that thumb-sized baby and dropped him into that snug cocoon he’ll be in for the next year, I had an epiphany.

I’M in this story. The Christmas story I mean. In fact, I’m more a part of this story than the (alleged) camels, than the shepherds, than the wise men, than Joseph, and even than Mary. I’m in this story and so are you. WE are the unseen attendees of the nativity. We are the attention of the Advent. We are reason the baby came. You are. I am. We are. Don’t think so? Read the gospels. Or just read John 3:16. Its right there in black and white.

Did you miss that detail this Christmas? Were you too busy singing “Mary Did You Know?” that you didn’t realize YOUR place in this story? Did you celebrate the major players in the story and completely omit the fact that we are not outsiders looking in but insiders looking out? That we–by virtue of the love of the Father shown through the Son–are the sole object of His affection? And furthermore that the Christmas story is far from over? That really the Christmas story concludes (if ever) only when Jesus is finally seated as Lord over all and every creature confesses Him as Lord?

Isn’t the story complete when the King who came to reach us all is the King who reigns over us all?

So while the décor of our homes may change as we wrap up this season, may the understanding of our hearts maintain that you and I are in this story as well. And that the King who came once is the King who will come again and will graciously conclude this Christmas story.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Jerry.

AreYouThereGodI don’t remember exactly how old I was, but when you see a book title that just drips with intrigue as much as July Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” does…well…you don’t get that out of you head very easily. I vaguely recall seeing this book on the floor of the bedroom my two older sisters shared. And that was at least 30 years ago, probably more.

I had no idea what it was about.

Turns out it’s a coming-of-age book for pre-pubescent girls. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually read it. Because as it turns out, I couldn’t get past the title. And as it turns out, that’s a good thing.

I’ve always been taught that God loves us. And by “us” I mean us. The world. You know, John 3:16 and all that stuff. All of us. Everyone. You know, US. But when I happened upon that book, it occurred to my young brain that there might be more to “us” than I thought. It occurred to me that if you look closely inside “us” there’s a “me”. That in actuality “us” is nothing more than a bunch of “me’s”. And if God loves “us”, could that mean that God loves “me”?

I’m sure Margaret had no idea she had had this affect on a young boy’s view of God.

Now, you might chalk this whole shift up to one of many cerebral upgrades I received as my kid brain developed. But when I think about the time in my life when I began to think of God in terms of “me” in addition to “us”, I’m pretty sure it was around the time I saw that book. Coincidence? Probably.

I wonder if there might be someone who might even be reading these words that can’t really make the leap from God loving “us” (generic) to God loving “me” (specific). Probably because you know you and you think you know Him. Can God care about just one person? Isn’t He way too big for that? And if He can, does He? Let me tell you a story.

Many summers ago I was going to be going on a mission trip with some teenagers. But it was still a few weeks away I had some things I needed to get done before leaving the country. One of those things was to buy a new antenna (the metal, extending kind) for my young son’s remote control car that he loved playing with. Having that car would give him one more thing to do while I was away and hopefully somehow help my wife in my absence. But without an antenna, the remote control car wouldn’t work. The trip got closer and closer and I simply ran out of time to get that antenna fixed. I was sorry about that, but what was I to do? Oh well.

It was the last day of our trip and I’d be returning home late that night. It was a Sunday morning and I was getting dressed for a local church service we’d be attending. I put on my khakis and felt something in the pocket. I reached in and I kid you not–pulled out a brand new metal antenna that would fit my son’s remote control perfectly. You may not know me, but you’ll have to trust me that to this day I can say with all confidence that no one knew about that antenna, that I hadn’t gotten one before leaving, or anything else about it. I stared at that antenna is shocked awe, knowing that God cares about “me”.

God cares deeply about you.
Where you are.
What’s hurting you.
Your joys, your aches, your questions, your stresses, your thoughts, your fears, and anything else you could think of ever.

Maybe you need to come to a place (or return to a place) of just knowing Emmanuel is not merely “God with us”, but He’s also God with YOU and that the things that are on your mind are on His mind as well.

“Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for YOU.”   -1 Peter 5:7

The Christmas Spikes

We’re less than 17 days till Christmas. We’re neck deep in the elements of the holiday that seem to set our minds on the sounds, smells, songs, and stuff of the season. The radio stations have long since switched over to all Christmas music all the time. No doubt about it: Its Christmas!

I’ve been preoccupied however. Truth be told, my mind hasn’t been as much on the manger, or the star, or the wise men, or the shepherds, or the angels. For some reason I can’t quite explain fully, my heart has been focused on the spikes. The ones found nowhere in the Christmas story.

CYMERA_20141208_095043I remember so well the soft, almost breakable feel of my own four children’s skin when they were babies. I can remember just holding their arm or fingers as they lay in that crib or car seat. I can still feel that tender skin on my finger tips. And I’ve got to believe that Mary felt the same kind of skin as Jesus lay there in that manger. I’ve got to believe that Mary would shutter at the very thought of that skin taking on the sin of humanity some 33 years later. I’ve got to believe that Mary would–at all costs–protect that skin from bruises, from scrapes, and from pain.

But Jesus put on that skin knowing fully that those spikes would one day tear through it. If you could know that during your next car ride you were going to be in a collision with another car, would you get in? If you could somehow know that the next time you tripped and fell you’d certainly break your arm, would you even dare to walk? If you could know that a gunman was outside your home, would you even go outside? Jesus, in the definitive act of divinity, grace, justice, and mercy knew beyond any doubt that those spikes awaited him and yet he willingly put on that skin and came to us for that very purpose….for those very spikes.

But I suppose those spikes are part of the Christmas story after all, aren’t they? We may not sing merrily this month about them, but if the purpose of the incarnation of God in flesh was ultimately to offer that flesh on a cross for all people everywhere, doesn’t it make sense to include them in the Christmas story our hearts retell?

I certainly don’t mean to skip over Christmas to get to the cross. And believe me, I’m soaking in every bit of this season as I possibly can; the tree, the lights, the songs, the food, the family, the joy, the celebration, and the manger. But deep in my heart I’m captivated by the spikes and the fact that those spikes, that cross, and my death were why the baby came at all.

Preaching Dissected

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”  -2 Timothy 4:2
kid preacher

I’m not totally sure why quite yet, but I’ve never really loved the word “preach”.  And this coming from a guy who’s been referred to for years as a “preacher”.  Not only that, but I’m literally “the son of a preacher man.”  But with the instruction the apostle Paul gives his young protégé Timothy in the verse above, I should probably have kind of a comfort with it, don’t you think?

Maybe it’s because the word “preach” has taken on a type of negative connotation. When I say “preacher”, you might get a mental image of a televangelist in a thousand dollar suit standing behind some gold-plated pulpit with tears streaming down his face as he confesses some private sin made public.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about what its like to be “preached at” and that propels you back to your teen years when your parents lectured you for hours on end over whatever mistake you got caught making.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about a church and the baggage that comes along with that word and those people who go there.

Or maybe its something else entirely.

I’ve had several times immediately following different sermons I’ve “preached” when someone would approach me with a smile and say, “That was a good speech.”  Honestly? I cringe inside when I hear that. Of course I know what they mean and I appreciate them taking the time to share their gratitude, but…well….nevermind.

But I suppose there is a lot more to say positively about the word “preach” and as I was listening to a sermon recently, I began to think of the different components, styles, or methods of “preaching”. So, just for fun I’ve come up with a variety of components that are commonly (or should be) found in effective “preaching”. And just to make it corny, I’m using the acronym PREACH. (Let’s all roll our eyes together, shall we?)

PPractical: Believe me, I trust the Spirit of God to lead you to places of application as you listen to the “preacher preach”, but I also appreciate when a pastor gives suggestions for practically living out the truth from God’s Word that they just spend time teaching. Personally, I think there’s too much “how to do” preaching and not enough “how to be” preaching.

R. Relatable: The best preachers I’ve heard have dirt under their fingernails. With all due respect to polished and refined teachers of the Word who seem like they’ve got their act together, I find myself more connected to preachers who are living life as they preach. There’s an approachability that comes along with the sense that this preacher isn’t just preaching, they’re wrestling. That being said, I also see the value of a preacher being careful not to make their sermon a place for dirty laundry. There’s something to be said for a preacher having settled (and won) some wrestling matches as well.

E. Exposition: I mentioned earlier being the son of a preacher man. My dad is one of the most knowledgeable Bible preachers/teachers I know. He’s my go-to when I’ve got questions of my own. And he is an “expository” preacher who is passionate about expository preaching. Now, I don’t think the average pew-sitting listener is really up at night wondering how to pronounce the Greek word “dikaiosune”, but I do think there’s power in preaching the original, honest, true-to-intent words of the Bible. While I may not literally speak a Greek word in a sermon (or I may), you’d better believe that I’ve studied them in preparation for that sermon so that I’m preaching what the original author intended.

A: Anecdotes: I don’t mean silly stories with no point, I mean stories that connect the listener to the truth being preached. I’ve got a word for sermons with no stories: boring.  Look at how Jesus taught; he used stories all the time. The word “parable” actually means “to set beside for the purpose of comparison” (I’ll spare you the Greek word for parable). Jesus knew the power of story and knew that stories are the #1 way to connect. A preacher who doesn’t leverage stories needs to understand what’s missing…and fix it. If you’ve ever heard me preach, you may know that I find humor to be one of the best ways to connect with the listeners. And a preacher who doesn’t care about connecting with those listening should stick to preaching to a mirror.

Conviction: There are few things more compelling than seeing someone with passion. Think about it. Passion is what moves people. I had a professor in college that taught hermeneutics with zero passion. He was brilliant and if you could pry him away from his 3×5 note cards he read from every day of class, you could see glimpses of that passion. At the end of the year evaluation, I told him he missed the off ramp to retirement years ago. Without passion, his content–no matter how great–was dry and difficult to absorb.

Humility: As with any follower of Jesus, this is perhaps the greatest, most critical ingredient for preachers. I’m so gratified by compliments I receive regarding my preaching. If you’ve ever given me one, you’ve likely heard me say two things: “Thank you!” and “Praise the Lord.”  I’m genuinely thankful when people take time to share if/how a sermon has affected them. And saying “Praise the Lord” isn’t me being churchy and speaking Christianese. I’m actually reminding myself that the credit is His alone. Its like getting a compliment for a tie I’m wearing. Its nice, but all I did was tie it in a knot around my neck.

As I prepare to preach, I refer to a list of questions I keep nearby. Maybe I’ll share those some other time. For now, what are YOUR thoughts on “preachers” and “preaching”?

Or do only preachers think about this stuff?