Does Anybody Know The Meaning of Christmas?

Life offers many questions. When it comes to curiosity in the physical world, we turn to science for answers. When we think about life’s big questions, we turn to philosophy. Religion seeks to answer spiritual questions that impact this life. Faith, in our case Christianity, offers answers to the meaning of life, the problem of sin and evil, and reveals that there is hope beyond this world through Jesus.

A.W. Tozer, an American Pastor, and Theologian writes

“It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas and so few stop to inquire into its meaning, but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of great import. The same man who will check his tires and consult his road map with utmost care before starting on a journey may travel for a lifetime on the way that knows no return and never once pauses to ask whether or not he is headed in the right direction.”

I think that Tozer brings up a great point. How much time do we spend discussing trivial matters that have little impact on our lives? Whether it’s sports (my favorite diversion), politics, or social media, we spend hours every week (day?) on these matters. A study in 2020 showed that the average social media user spends 2 hours and 33 minutes on the six major social media platforms every day! While there can be some good things that come from social media, we can agree that most of it is negative. We have magnified the trivial while ignoring matters of greater importance.

This Christmas, we will spend much time decorating, hanging lights, shopping for presents, baking cookies, traveling to see family and friends, putting up a tree, and going to parties. At what point do we stop and consider the meaning of Christmas? Where do we find time to abide with Christ- God in flesh- who has come to abide in us?

Christmas is more than wrapping paper, gifts, cookies, or lights. It is pretty straightforward. God has come to earth in human form to gather humanity to God. St. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation writes, “God became man that we might become God.” We do not become God, but when we are forgiven and redeemed, God calls us to live as one with God. At Christmas, we must consider the importance of God coming to earth to save humanity as it reflects our value and worth in the eyes of God.

Consider this another way. In the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie is depressed about the holiday’s commercialization. His friend, Lucy, asks him to direct a Christmas pageant. Directing a play is no help for Charlie’s mood. As Lucy and the others mock Charlie’s Christmas tree, he asks, “Does anybody know what Christmas is about?” You know how it ends. Linus takes center stage and proclaims:

Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

With that, Linus declares, “That is what Christmas is all about.”

This Christmas, let us spend a little less time on things that are trivial and spend time in prayer and contemplation about the meaning of Christmas- and how God invites us to live because of the Good News of the Christmas story!

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Walking in the Darkness

The other day I was up until midnight, only to discover that it was only 6:00 p.m. I don’t like how the darkness takes over at such an early time. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the season of Advent takes place during the darkest time of the year. While there is a lot of excitement as Christmas approaches, this time of darkness is representative of the darkness we encounter in the world. During Advent, we acknowledge that we are “people walking in darkness.” Just as the darkness of December is real right now, the darkness we experience in our lives and the world is just as tangible.

The time between the Prophets in the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus is called the inter-testimonial period. This time was a 400-year period where there were no recorded prophets. The people did not hear the Word of God. God was silent. The Temple, the center of their community life and faith, was destroyed. Israel went from captivity in Babylon and occupation by the Persians and Romans. The nation lived in sin and had turned their collective back on God. Darkness filled the land.

Advent is a time when we recognize that there are times when God chooses to be silent and other times when our sin prevents us from hearing God’s voice. In these moments of darkness, we can feel disoriented and alone. Advent is a reminder that Jesus walks with us in the darkness and the silence.

As the darkness gets longer while the days get shorter, let us cling to the promises of God, that God will “never leave us or forsake us.” God is with us no matter how deep the darkness we encounter.

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Identifying Christian Nationalism

This week, I am preaching on Hebrews 12:1-2 for All Saints Sunday. In the text, the author reminds the reader that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” and that we should look to Jesus who is the “author and perfector of our faith.” While not part of my sermon, this got me thinking about Christian Nationalism.

What is Christian Nationalism? It is

“the “belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation.”

Paul D. Miller (What is Christian Nationalism)

Christian Nationalism is not the same as patriotism, according to Miller. Patriotism is the love of country. Christian Nationalism seeks to define our country as a Christian nation- and that Christians have a special place within the framework of our nation.

This was easily spotted back at the Republican National Convention back in 2020. Vice President Mike Pence, a self-described Christian, quoted the passage I am preaching from in Hebrews.

Did you catch that? Hebrews 12:2 says

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set out before us, Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

Pence says,

“Let us run the race marked out for us; let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory…”

Pence leverages the Scriptures for political purposes. He replaces “Jesus,” and tells viewers to look to “Old Glory.” This is a pretty straightforward instance of Christian Nationalism contained in a speech.

The Democrats also know how to warp scripture for political leverage. In August of 2021 following a suicide attack in Kabul that killed several Marines and Afghan citizens, President Joe Biden attempts to communicate that the Marines know the dangers they face in their call to serve the country. Biden quotes Isaiah 6, “Here am I! Send me!” to describe Marine’s willingness to go and serve where called.

If you’re unfamiliar with Isaiah 6, it is the text of God calling Isaiah to go to the people and call them to repentance. Isaiah is calling them back to God. There is nothing regarding the military in the text. This is a gross misinterpretation and misapplication of the text for political purposes.

There is a great danger when we use Scripture out of context to defend, describe, or inspire a nation or army. There is an even greater danger when Scripture, out of context, is used to describe or define an ideology. The Bible never mentions America. America is not, somehow, a new Israel (as I heard occasionally growing up), and our military is not God’s army. Using Scripture in this way enables us to justify the treatment of those not like us as “enemies of God” since they are enemies of our country.

As Christians who are American, let us seek to read and understand the Bible in its own context. It is not an American text. Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, let us look to this very same Jesus (and not at Old Glory) who is the author and perfector of our faith.

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When The Saints Go Marching In

I love getting to professional baseball games early to watch batting practice and to see these incredible athletes practice their craft. As someone who played baseball through college, it is exciting to see the work that these athletes put in on a daily basis. They have built their lives around training, preparing, and playing baseball. Most ballplayers have careers that are forgotten about. Some players become regulars, starters, and All-Stars over the course of their careers. I know that my coach (one of which was my dad) would encourage me to watch how baseball players prepare, play, and handle adversity in order to learn how to play the game better.

This Sunday is All Saints Sunday, where we remember those saints who have had their triumphal entry into God’s presence over the last year. In the New Testament, a saint simply refers to all Christians across all time. In the book of Hebrews, the author talks about how we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” and encourages us to watch them in order to learn how to persevere in our faith and life. We are called to watch the saints/witnesses are their lives testify to the reality of Jesus in their lives.

I’m always taken aback when I look at the list of saints from our church on All Saints Sunday because their lives have so much to offer us. Even in death, they serve as witnesses to the faithfulness of God. They encourage us to walk faithfully with Jesus and with one another. These witnesses show us that we, too, can walk with Jesus each day. The real question is, who are we watching?

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Getting Our Worship Muscle Back in Shape

I didn’t make it to the gym during the two weeks we were on vacation. I admit that I thought about going to the gym. I even looked up where the gym was. There was nothing keeping me from going to the gym except me. Skipping the gym during vacation may be acceptable, however, I only went to the gym once the week after we got back.

When I made the decision to go back to the gym it was like I had never gone before. I had trouble completing workouts. My breathing was not where it was before vacation, I ached in every way possible. After a few workouts though, my body started to reacclimate to the movements of the workouts and the weight that I was using. A few more workouts later, I began to look forward to getting up in the morning and feeling my body get stronger.

We all have worship muscles. These muscles grow when we regularly gather for corporate worship and practice personal worship at home. We can build up our worship muscles when we pour our hearts out to God. We tone our muscles in the ways we surrender to God. We can flex our worship muscles by praising God in the storms in our lives.

Just as we can build up our worship muscles, those same muscle can atrophy as well. When we regularly miss worship, we can forget how important it is to offer ourselves to God. When we skip the worship workout our focus begins to fade. We begin to look at the waves of the storm rather than looking at the Lord of the wind and the rain. Just as it is easy to make excuses to refrain from going to the gym, as our worship muscles atrophy we can become comfortable outside of the worshipping Body of Christ.

It’s been a long 18 months of a pandemic. We have a lot of reasons to have missed worship, but we must resist the temptation to believe we are better off without gathering together to worship. As Christians, we are called to worship (corporately and privately) as a way to follow Jesus and to love the people God has put in our path. Let us invite the Holy Spirit to strengthen us as we get our worship muscles back in shape!

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Is Unity Possible?

Following the 2020 election cycle, many have commented on the division in our country. There have been many calls to set aside our political and ideological differences to pursue unity as Americans. Every time one side of the political aisle says or does something, the other side comes unglued. Things are not that different in the church as well. In The United Methodist Church, where I serve, we have been ministering under the shadow of a coming schism. We dissect every word or action (especially among leaders) to look for ulterior motives. 

Yesterday in worship, I shared that the church’s foundation (and Christians) is the confession that Jesus is the Messiah. This confession is the source of our unity. However, unity often feels like trying to grasp sand at the beach; the harder we try to hold on, the more sand slips through our fingers. 

What does it take to live in unity with our brothers and sisters who very likely don’t believe everything the same way we do?

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This is an excellent sounding verse and highlights that unity is something we should pursue. Looking at this singular verse does nothing to instruct us how to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We need to look at the context that Paul offers us.

Paul writes, 

“I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility, gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3 ESV)

Unity does not just happen. Lasting unity results from a commitment of diverse people to walk with one another informed by their faith. They must approach each other with humility, gentleness, and they must be patient with one another. They must bear with each other, not out of tolerance, but in love! If some of these phrases sound familiar, it is because there are, at least, five out of the nine Fruit of the Spirit that Paul list in Galatians 5:22-23. Unity will only be possible when both parties walk with each other in a manner worthy of their calling. 

God,

Thank you for the diversity that you have given us. Help us to appreciate and love the diverse people and experiences around us. Please lead us to work for unity amid diversity as we center our lives on Jesus. Amen.

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Not Safe, But Good

The Chronicles of Narnia had played a significant role in my life. I’ve read them several times, along with many other of the writings of C.S. Lewis. Narnia was a world created by Lewis to tell the story of Jesus to children. Aslan, the great Lion, is the Christ-figure in the story who gives up his life to free one child from captivity and the world from perpetual winter. 

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In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lucy and Susan ask Mrs. Beaver (the animals can talk):

“Ooh,” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe? Said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This passage is my favorite part of the story because Mr. Beaver shares that Aslan is not safe, but he is good. As we consider the goodness of God, following God is not always safe. God called Abram to leave his family and his country for an unknown land. God’s path led Joseph to prison. Jesus called the disciples to leave everything behind to follow him. God is not safe. But God is good.

Too often, the Western Church has pursued safety rather than following the Lion of Judah. We want sanitized song lyrics, TV shows, and movies without language or violence, and we hope that our children will grow into friendly adults rather than seeking to follow Jesus into the challenging and adventurous places in our lives. Jesus calls us to give up everything, to crucify our old self to the cross. God is not safe. But God is good.

Have you been seeking safety rather than trusting in God’s goodness through the adventure of discipleship? Have we traded the joy of following Jesus for a bland version of Christianity that is free of risks? When we eliminate the risk of following Jesus, we find that we are no longer following Jesus. Let us put our trust in God’s goodness and take a leap of faith as we risk it all to follow Jesus.

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Three Simple Rules to Be A Welcoming Church

As we consider what our church life might look like in a more “normal” state, the staff and leadership have discussed ways that Avenue can be more hospitable to guests and 1st-time attenders. If you’ve ever had to go to a church for the first time (in other words, if you weren’t born attending Avenue), you know what a daunting task it can be to come to church. There are some practical things that we (who are regular attenders) can keep in mind to be more intentional about integrating first-time guests into the community at Avenue. I want to thank Rebecca McLaughlin (via @markhallock on Twitter) for the ideas!

  1. A Person Sitting Alone Constitutes and Emergency | When we see someone sitting alone, we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves and invite that person to sit with us. One of the barriers for new people coming to worship is the fear that they won’t know anyone or sit alone. While they may say no and be alright sitting alone, the invitation goes a long way to helping that person feel welcome. (of course, during COVID, we may have to be wise about how we do this.)
  2. Your Friends Can Wait | Over the last twenty years in ministry, I see this as one of the most significant barriers to being a welcoming church. We can become so cliquish that we don’t intentionally look for new people to welcome. On the one hand, this is good because we have found friends to worship and grow together. On the other hand, it is a barrier because the guest will see the cliques quickly and recognize that they don’t fit in. Your friends can wait (and will wait) to catch up with you. A guest will not wait to come back if they do not feel welcomed and included.
  3. Introduce Newcomers to Someone | The gym I attend does a great job of this. I participated in group workouts, and when there is someone new trying out the class for the first time, our coach introduces the newcomer to the people around them. It helps to build community and makes them immediately feel included. When you meet a guest in worship, introduce them to your friends or the people sitting around them. Help them feel like they are part of the community. As you talk, you may find common interests and connections that are shared.

Here in Delaware, our governor recently announced that most capacity restrictions would be lifted for churches beginning May 21st, 2021. Just as we’ve seen guests attend Avenue over the past six months, I expect that we will continue to newcomers. Even during the worship service, we must be missionaries, who are called to “go” to new people and help them get connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ.

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In The Presence of My Enemies

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Psalm 23:5

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I thought following Jesus would make my life easier?” I have to admit that I’ve probably thought that a few times. There are segments of Christianity that declare that “if you have enough faith that you will be successful” or that “God wants you to be prosperous.” This kind of thinking is not only dangerous to our personal faith, it is dangerous for the Church to believe this. Through the Scriptures, and especially the teachings of Jesus we are told that we will suffer, be persecuted, and instructed to “carry our cross.” The New Testament tells us less about “thriving” and more about “enduring” or “persevering.” Doesn’t exactly sound like American ideas of success and prosperity.

I have come to love the 23rd Psalm more and more. We’ve heard it so much that we can see it as trite or over stated. Perhaps we only associate it with funerals and we don’t see the importance the Psalm can play in our day-to-day living. In the Psalm, we see that the Lord our Shepherd provides everything the sheep needs AND leads us through the darkest valleys. Later, in verse 5, we are told that the Shepherd prepares “a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It is both/and rather than either/or. God doesn’t just provide for us during the good times, God is walking beside us in Death Valley as well as providing for us while we are surrounded by enemies, trials, and testing. Just because we walk through dark times or find ourselves in a place of opposition or oppression does not mean that God is not providing for us. The Good Shepherd is with us all of the way.

When we go through difficult times in our lives we must remember that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, suffered and died for us. Jesus knows the way through the low points in life. Jesus knows how to persevere through times of opposition. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us the way and leads us through the challenging times of life.

Are you following the Good Shepherd through the smooth season and the seasons that are difficult? The Shepherd provides in both when we follow.

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We Need More Boring Pastors

Recently, Carl Lentz was fired from his church due to moral failures. He was the pastor at Hillsong NYC. He posted on Instagram that he was leading “out of an empty place” and was “unfaithful to in his marriage.” Lentz is one of several high-profile pastors who have been fired or had to step down for a variety of reasons. My heart breaks for him, but especially his wife, children, and the church who looked to him as a shepherd.

Lentz had an incredible platform to proclaim the Gospel in NYC. He was on Oprah. NBA All-Star Kevin Durant attended Hillsong NYC. Lentz walked with Justin Beiber as he works out his faith. Lentz is another in a long line of celebrity pastors who are fired because of moral failures. This includes Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, James MacDonald and the list could go on and on. There are plenty of non-celebrity pastors fall from grace because of unchecked ego and sin. There is something in our culture (especially American Christianity) that loves to elevate Pastors/Leaders to celebrity status. It seems from my vantage point from afar that there is often little accountability for these pastors/leaders to steer them back when the begin to stray and too little humility to allow pastors to be held accountable.

Pastors make the news for all the wrong reasons. One wonders if pastors should be making the news at all. Recently, video was posted of a pastor in Missouri preaching about how women were not “hot enough.” At best, there is nothing in the Bible that addresses this- at worst, this is spiritual abuse. My point is this, whether it is a celebrity pastor, like Carl Lentz, or a pastor I’ve never heard of making some off-the-wall claims or teaching, it makes the role of a pastor and the ministry we have been called to even more challenging. I even struggle with my call in light of the negative examples in the news.

We need more boring pastors. This doesn’t mean we need boring preachers- I don’t believe that preaching should be boring because God’s Word is alive. We don’t need boring teachers- because nothing is worse than a boring Bible study. What I mean is that we need pastors who are committed to their communities over platforms. Pastors who keep their noses in the Word of God and their knees connected to the floor in prayer. Pastors who will allow others to hold themselves account and who practice humility over fame. Pastors committed to cultivating the slow process of spiritual growth and discipleship within their community rather than seeking to grow a megachurch.

We also need churches filled with Christians who desire boring pastors who are committed to slow, deep, and meaningful kingdom work. We must be committed to the long game. The other day, I had a congregant ask me when I was going to “set the church on fire” by filling the pews. In their mind, successful ministry looks like “butts in the pews.” I would love to see our church filled with people. Even more, I want to be a pastor who can shepherd our community into a deep, abiding, and meaningful faith in Jesus Christ that helps us, and others, make sense of the world we live in.

Over the last few months, I’ve prayed for Lentz and others who have become caught up in the celebrity pastor scene. It’s made me repent of my own tendencies to desire a greater platform to be known under the thinly veiled guise of preaching the gospel. I’ve had to repent of my own pride when it feels good to have someone compliment my preaching or my teaching in Bible study. I repent, because there is a side of me that wants to be a flashy pastor. I repent, because I know that I’m called to be a boring pastor committed to shepherding the community God has called me to.

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