He Is Coming, Part 4: “Be Available” (Luke 1:26-38)

December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.

Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.

All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

He Is Coming, Part 3: “Be Vibrant” (Luke 1:39-56)

Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals that the young Jewish girl who gave birth to the Messiah knew her Bible well. She weaves together at least 30 echoes, allusions, and citations from the Old Testament into her composition. The resulting scriptural tapestry bears a striking resemblance to the prayer of Hannah, a woman who was barren, yet God miraculously gave a son—the Prophet Samuel—whom she dedicated to the Lord. But it’s more than just Hannah’s prayer that stands behind the Magnificat; it’s myriad other references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, too. Her song is saturated and marinated in Scripture. It’s a musical medley that we might consider in our day something akin to a biblical mashup.
 
Mary likely composed the piece in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose. It’s also likely that these words became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrible spectacle of Calvary. He sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
 
Some rabbis in Mary’s day said, “Keep the Torah far away from women; they will corrupt it to go near it. If they so much as touch the scroll, you must burn it.” One can be glad Mary and her family didn’t adhere to such a foolish tradition, for Mary’s burst of praise becomes part of sacred Scripture itself—God’s revelation to the world. And Elizabeth is not her only audience; we, are too. In this passage, Mary is “rightly dividing the word of truth” from the Old Testament, pulling it together and describing for us how God is bringing the Messiah into the world, and what he will do when he comes. She teaches us the Scriptures—anticipating the promise in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy [i.e., speak forth the Word of God].” Mary leads the way on this declaration. Indeed, she’s an extraordinary reminder that a spiritually vibrant life is marked by Scripture, praise, and humility. While certain traditions overly exalt Mary, others greatly under appreciate her. Neither extreme is warranted. She is truly a model for the ages.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

He Is Coming, Part 2: “Be Repentant” (Mark 1:1-8)

Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion) referred to “the good news announcement” of a military victory on the battlefield, a legal victory in a court of law, or the birth and/or ascension of a new king to the throne. One ancient inscription refers to the birth of Caesar Augustus as “the beginning of the gospel,” the exact phrase Mark uses in the opening line of his account of the life of Christ. Mark actually “hijacks” that reference to Caesar and reassigns it to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has won the ultimate battle over evil, sin, and death, and rules now from his throne in heaven. What unlocks the “good news” in a person’s life is faith and repentance—making a turn from going in one direction in order to go the other way and follow Jesus. 

Ultimately, “repentance” is a positive word, as God graciously allows his people to leave their path of destruction and avoid disastrous consequences. God’s offer of repentance means there is still hope. It means God hasn’t given up on us. It means there’s still a possibility to participate in his kingdom renewal efforts here on earth. As John Climacus has said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. It is not despondency but eager expectation. . . . To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”

The difficulty for us is letting go of trying to be the boss of our own lives and letting Jesus call the shots instead. A well-known bumper sticker in our day says, “God is my co-pilot,” but the truth is: If God is your co-pilot, switch seats. He wants to be the pilot of our lives. Yes, God sees us as we are and loves us as we are, but by his grace, he does not leave us where we are. Indeed, he is ever ordering our lives in such a way that we can learn to make him our highest treasure.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

The overarching theme of Advent is the coming of Christ, both in the manger at Bethlehem and in the clouds of glory at the end of the age. As such, Charles Wesley’s adaptation of John Cennick’s “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” has become a standard Advent hymn in our day, though I think it is largely underutilized.

The piece is both pensive and soaring, especially those arrangements that feature a descant on the final stanza. Evangelical congregations typically use the Regent Square tune (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”), while high churches often use the Helmsley tune, which is the one featured in the video below.

The benefit of having an eclectic musical taste is that I get to experience and appreciate a wide range of musical expressions—sacred or otherwise. When I was in Oxford last year, I “got my inner Anglican on” by participating in two Evensong services, both of which were astoundingly beautiful, not to mention food for the soul. So, yes, I can swing from Hillsong to Evensong with no heartburn at all. In fact, I rather enjoy the adventure.

Moreover, variety is a great “rut buster,” so tomorrow I’ll share some Christmas jazz tunes I’ve been listening to lately. On this Second Sunday of Advent, however, we’ll stick with the sacred. Enjoy the choir of Lichfield Cathedral singing this lovely Advent meditation. All pictures are from their cathedral in Staffordshire, England.

Lo, He comes with clouds descending, 
Once for favoured sinners slain; 
Thousand thousand saints attending 
Swell the triumph of His train: 
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! 
God appears on earth to reign. 

Every eye shall now behold Him 
Robed in dreadful majesty; 
Those who set at naught and sold Him, 
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree, 
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, 
Shall the true Messiah see. 

Those dear tokens of His passion 
Still his dazzling body bears, 
Cause of endless exultation 
To His ransomed worshippers: 
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture, 
Gaze we on those glorious scars! 

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee, 
High on Thine eternal throne; 
Saviour, take the power and glory, 
Claim the kingdom for Thine own: 
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! 
Thou shalt reign and Thou alone.

Image Credits: depositphotos.com.

He Is Coming, Part 1: “Be Ready” (Mark 13:24-37)

People don’t usually have too much trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ first coming. The story is largely soft, gentle, pleasant, and disarming. There’s a star in the east, a gaggle of shepherds, and a baby in a manger, asleep on the hay. It doesn’t look like very much, nor does it seem to threaten anyone (except, perhaps, King Herod). People tend to have a lot more trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ second coming because it’s exactly the opposite of the first. Instead of a star in the sky, we have stars falling out of the sky. Instead of local ruddy shepherds, we have majestic angels and saints from all over the globe. Moreover, Jesus is not a harmless little baby anymore, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Instead, he’s the returning victorious king wrapped in clouds of glory, functioning now as the Judge of all the earth. It’s a cosmic and cataclysmic scene, and everyone will recognize his lordship when it happens.

Exactly when will all this take place? Jesus gives the illustration of a budding fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) and the illustration of alert servants (Mark 13:32-37) to remind his followers, “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33). So, the doctrine of the Second Coming is not given as a prophetic jigsaw puzzle to be solved, but as a motivation for practical faith and godly living until the consummation of history. All told, the passage reminds us that Jesus is coming again, so be ready for his appearing. Knowing the precise timing of his return could lead some to procrastinate their faithfulness—to put it on hold, or to suggest that loyalty to him is no big deal. “Not so,” says Jesus. “I’m coming again, and you don’t know when, so be watchful. Be ready for my return.” Ultimately, the doctrine of the Second Coming is a source of great hope and comfort for believers because it portrays the heart of the gospel: the Judge who will judge us has already received our judgment at the cross.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

The Incarnation sends my heart and mind into orbit every year. That’s why I’m glad we have an entire season of the church calendar to reflect on it. There’s no way to fully plumb its depths with these finite minds of ours. I started writing some Christmas devotional pieces for later this month, and the waterworks have already begun. Good music only makes it worse. Often I can do little more than just put my pen down and throw my hands up in gratitude and awe. That God should become one of us in the person of Christ is sheer mystery wrapped in divine love. The same is true for the second coming of Christ, to which the season of Advent also points.

As we do every year, we’re singing Charles Wesley’s classic, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” to kick off the new church year. It would be difficult to find a better selection. Wesley wrote this Advent hymn and had it printed in his Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord in 1744. Like so many of his texts, this piece alludes to one or more Scripture passages in nearly every phrase. Moreover, the double nature of Advent is reflected in these lyrics, remembering Christ’s first coming even while anticipating his return.

Stanzas 1 and 2 (which form verse 1 in most of today’s hymnals) recall messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. Stanza 3 speaks of Christ’s birth and kingdom, and stanza 4 functions as a plea for Christ to rule in our hearts.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

Wesley was the eighteenth child (and youngest son) of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was born at Epworth Rectory on December 18, 1707. In 1716 he went to Westminster School, being provided with room and board by his brother Samuel. He was an usher at the school until 1721, when he was elected King’s Scholar, resulting in free tuition and board. In 1726 he was elected to a Westminster studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, where he took his M.A. degree in 1729. 

Charles wrote hundreds of poetic works with his brother John, the famous revivalist and founder of Methodism. His individual hymns number well over 5,000. Among his more famous today are:

1738  And Can It Be?
1739  Jesus, Lover of My Soul
1739  Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
1739  Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
1749  O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Which is your favorite? I for one could sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” every other Sunday and not get tired of it! Jesus was not only the child born to die, he was the child born to rise again! Charles Wesley himself was “raised” to Christ’s “glorious throne” on March 29, 1788. The Spirit of God left his mark on this servant, and he in turn left his mark on us.

Let the ADVENTure Begin

The sanctuary has been prepared.

The worship has been prepared.

The sermon series has been prepared.

And now—together—our hearts will be prepared.

For him.

Let the ADVENTure begin.

The 10:30 a.m. worship is accessible in three ways:

  • In-Person Attendance (with Masks and Social Distancing)
  • Local Radio Broadcast on WWSM (Channel 1510 AM)

Local folks, do note that if you’re not able to attend in person, Zoom may be the better option for now, as our local radio broadcast is sometimes a week behind. We’ll keep you posted as we refine our technological capabilities.

And Guide Us When Perplexed

The Sunday before Thanksgiving is typically a precious time of worship for many believers—on at least two counts. First, according to the liturgical calendar, it’s the last Sunday after Pentecost, known in many traditions as Christ the King Sunday. Worshipers take the opportunity to ascribe glory and honor to King Jesus, who is Lord of chronos (or “unfolding”) time as well as kairos (or “epochal”) time. It’s a way of putting an exclamation mark on the longest season of the church year before the calendar starts all over again next week with the season of Advent. King Jesus “was, and is, and is to come.” He is Lord of all time.

Second, on the civil calendar in the United States, it’s the Sunday leading into Thanksgiving Day. Many North American worshipers therefore take the opportunity to thank the Lord for his many blessings and providential care throughout the year. “We Gather Together” is a meaningful hymn that we often sing on this day, but we skipped it this year because so many parishioners aren’t able to gather in person. Instead, they livestream the service to avoid exposure to the virus. Equally poignant to me, however, is Martin Rinkart’s evocative and stately hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” This piece, too, puts a lump in my throat, and we’re singing it today.

Rinkart was a German clergyman who served in the town of Eilenburg during the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Overrun with refugees during the Great Epidemic of 1637, he conducted between 40 to 50 funerals a day. I can hardly imagine such a calling. Nevertheless, he found a way to be thankful under the most trying of circumstances, penning these memorable words:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

I’m especially struck this year by the line, “And guide us when perplexed.” No doubt the presence of all that plague and war death around him took its toll personally and emotionally. How could it not? Rinkart, however, turned his mystification into a prayer request. “Guide us now, Lord, in these perplexing times. And as you keep us in your grace, free us from all ills, in this world and the next.” Such a request is appropriate in any age.

We’re not always sure why life unfolds the way it does. Chronos can be confusing sometimes, but believers know the ultimate kairos is on its way. Christ is coming back for his people, and all will recognize him then as the true King. Every knee will finally bow to him (Phil 2:10). “For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

Amen.

Image Credit: myjewishlearning.com.

The Blood Covenant, Part 6: Rescued and Released (Luke 1:67-75)

Fear is a universal sensation. Everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Good fear protects us from danger and keeps us from hurting ourselves. It prevents a child from getting into a stranger’s car. It causes adults to slow down on slippery roads. It even keeps spouses from forgetting their wedding anniversary! But there’s also a bad kind of fear that we have to face in life. Bad fear paralyzes us from doing what we should be doing, and it provokes us into doing what we shouldn’t be doing. Because of sin, this kind of fear is deep within all of us. In fact, the first words out of Adam’s mouth in his fallen state were, “I…was…afraid” (Gen 3:10). From that point on, many people have gone through life like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Fear dominates their every move.

When the New Covenant dawns in Zechariah’s day, the priest praises God because the Lord had remembered “his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear” (Luke 1:67-75). Christmas happens, says Zechariah, because God made a promise a long time ago, and now he’s bringing it to pass. But it’s not just any promise; it’s a covenant promise—an oath he swore with uplifted hand to Father Abraham. One result of that covenant is that believers can now serve the Lord “without fear.” Quite significantly, all the major characters in the Advent story are given the same angelic word: “Do not be afraid.” In this sermon, we look at the various kinds of fear they experienced, and how the God of covenant love addresses each one:

  • Zechariah—the fear of disappointment:
    “It’s hard to hope again!” (Luke 1:5-25) 
  • Mary—the fear of inadequacy:
    “This is too big for me!” (Luke 1:26-38) 
  • Joseph—the fear of rejection:
    “What will people think?” (Matthew 1:18-25) 
  • Shepherds—the fear of the unknown:
    “This doesn’t make sense!” (Luke 2:1-20) 

The message for believers today is this: The more we trust God with our fears, the more we will participate in his plan to recapture the world. God says to his people, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I know you live in a scary world. I know you’ll have to face difficult situations, but you are not alone. I am with you. Because of covenant, we’re in this together. So, fear not!” That’s a good word for God’s people today, too. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.