Kingdom of God

Upside Down (Easter), 31 March 2024

Upside Down (Easter)
John 19:30

Big Idea:
Because of the resurrection, our world and future are radically transformed.
I love roller coasters. As a young boy, they terrified me, but a $20 bribe from my grandpa got me convinced to ride one a few years later and I was hooked (on roller coasters, not the $20!!!). Despite my early love for roller coasters, there was one thing I wouldn’t ride…a coaster that goes
upside down. I don’t know if I thought I would fall out or just thought it would be a weird sensation but I refused to do a loop for several years…until my grandpa bribed—no, he wasn’t involved this time, but when I was at King’s Island, I faced my fear and went upside down for the first time on a roller coaster, and while I didn’t want to stay upside down, I loved it!
We’re not here to talk about roller coasters (though I can’t wait to ride Top Thrill 2!), but the subject of Easter—of Resurrection Sunday—is filled with surprises, with irony, with
upside down reality. It’s really a picture of life in the Kingdom of God, the life of a follower of Jesus. He is risen!
The resurrection of Jesus has been celebrated since…well, since it occurred in the first century. I wish we had time today to unpack all of the reasons why I believe in the resurrection. I do realize dead people do not usually come back to life…especially when they are exposed to the horror of crucifixion
. Nobody’s been able to locate the place where Jesus’ body was placed or buried, so whether you believe Jesus rose from the dead or not, just imagine for a moment that he did. What if it’s true?
The subject of Resurrection Sunday is filled with surprises, with irony, with
upside down reality. Our scripture reading text is filled with such moments!
Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, NLT)
Nothing special here.
Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. 3 His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. 4 The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint. (Matthew 28:2-4, NLT)
Earthquake. Angel. Shining face and white clothing. Of course, the guards were afraid and fainted. Have you ever seen an angel? It seems like they always say the same thing…
Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. 7 And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7, NLT)
The crucified don’t rise from the dead! That’s as
upside down as it gets!
The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message. (Matthew 28:8, NLT)
Frightened and joyful. That’s upside down!
The Kingdom of God is upside down from the kingdoms of this world.
But let’s back up. How did we get to this scene? Many of you know the story of Good Friday which we remembered two days ago. One of Jesus’ three best friends, John, wrote regarding Jesus on the cross…
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30, NIV)
I’m grateful to pastor Erwin McManus for introducing me to the true meaning of this simple verse and its relevance to Easter. Jesus did three things.
First, he said, “It is finished.” This was moments before he died, making this declaration look like one of defeat. It appears his life is finished. His friends certainly saw it that way. Usually when people die, it’s a tragedy. The Hebrew word for
death does not mean the absence of life, but rather the separation of two things that never meant to be separated. Death feels wrong because it is. My father-in-law died on Monday and we’ve been surrounded by preparations for next Sunday’s funeral. But when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about the end of his life. He was referencing his completed mission to seek and save the lost. What appeared to be a failure was upside down. Jesus fulfilled the scriptures written centuries earlier. The cross was viewed as a symbol of powerlessness, but on the cross Jesus had total confidence in his power to accomplish the mission. At the cross, defeat is victory.
Then he bowed his head. This is the same language found when he said,
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20, NIV)
Jesus had no place to rest his head, but he did on the cross. There is rest at the cross. He takes an act of violence and turns things
upside down, making it a place of peace.
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30, NIV)
Thirdly, the text says Jesus “gave up his spirit.” This doesn’t mean he lost it, but rather he gave it up, he made a choice—a decision—with his last act. Nobody took Jesus’ life, it was a gift, an act of grace, unmerited favor.
Do you see how
upside down the story of Jesus is? In this one verse, we see defeat is victory, violence is peace, failure is conquest. It’s not the death of Jesus that makes Good Friday good. Yes, he died to offer forgiveness to every man, woman, and child that responds to his simple invitation, “Follow me.” But if there was no resurrection, we wouldn’t be celebrating today.
Some of you today are exploring what it means to follow Jesus. Welcome! We welcome people of all faiths, backgrounds, ethnicities, …all humans are welcome here! We’re not about becoming a big church or famous, but we are about helping people discover Jesus and what you might call the upside-down Kingdom of God. Our faith is not built on philosophy or someone’s dream or a dead person’s wisdom. It’s on the living person of Jesus, a real human who changed the world, who showed us what it means to be human.
In many ways, following Jesus is the opposite of following the world—both the religious world and the culture. Religious people have always tried to be good enough for a perfect God, but it doesn’t work. It’s always tempting to keep up with the Joneses, to pursue the American Dream, to just do it, to have it your way, to do you and be true to yourself (what slogans am I missing?!), but how’s that working for you? It’s no secret that we live in a cancel culture that then struggles with loneliness (I wonder why?!). Money, sex, and power are like a mirage in the desert, an illusion of satisfaction which quickly fades away. I like these words from the late J. Oswald Sanders:
“Because we children of Adam want to become great, He became small. Because we will not stoop, He humbled Himself. Because we want to rule, He came to serve.”
Jesus died for you and for me. His blood poured out of his beaten body, his head covered in a crown of thorns, nails in his wrists and feet, eventually a spear in his side. He took our punishment. That’s upside down!
Jesus left heaven to come to earth. That’s upside down!
His blood washes us white as snow. That’s upside down!
He brings us from darkness into light. That’s upside down!
And it wasn’t because we’re good people.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NIV)
That’s really upside down! That’s the message of the gospel, the good news. Jesus died for us…not only to experience forgiveness and grace, but also a relationship with God.
Jesus turned everything upside-down. Consider a few of his choice statements:
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:39, NIV)
Six chapters later, he says it again.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matt. 16:25, NIV)
Perhaps you’ve heard this one:
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. Matt. 19:30
Perhaps the most radical of commands is found in chapter five of the same book.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor  and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Matt. 5:43-44   
Love your enemies? That’s so upside-down. It sounds ridiculous to our culture. Cancel your enemies. Harm your enemies. Treat them the way they treat you. At the very best ignore your enemies. But love them?
One of the things I love about Jesus is he gets us. Perhaps you’ve seen the tv commercials! But he really gets us. He spent 33 years on our planet, getting sick, cold, tempted, and enduring the most horrific pain imaginable on the cross.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
I love that so much! When he says things like “love your enemies,” he walks the talk.
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:33-34) 
Paul, who had a life-transforming encounter with the risen Jesus, notes:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. 5 He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. 6 After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, NLT)
It's not like one or two people had a hallucination or something!
The resurrection is everything to the follower of Jesus. Paul, who met Jesus, wrote,
And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:15-17, NLT)
Without the resurrection, our faith is useless.
Without the resurrection, we are guilty of our sins.
Without the resurrection, we have no hope.
Without the resurrection, we have no peace.
Without the resurrection, Christianity is just one of many religions trying to get to God.
Without the resurrection, we’re wasting our time praying to a dead God.
Without the resurrection, we have future of death.
Without the resurrection, this is as good as it gets (and that’s tragic!)
Without the resurrection, we have no purpose (he who dies with the most toys wins)
But because he lives, I’m alive!
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow
Because he lives, every fear is gone
So What?
In a moment we’re going to hear stories of people who have said, “Jesus, I give you my life.” If you’ve done that, let this be a moment to remember your surrender and recommit to follow Jesus and his upside-down, radical, alternative way of life.
If you’ve never said, “Jesus, I give you my life,” I urge you to do so today. It’s the most amazing experience to surrender, die to your own selfish ways, and be resurrected in Christ. When you do so, Christ lives in you! When you die, you can really live. That’s upside down…and it’s amazing!

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

You can watch this video and others at the First Alliance Church Video Library

Prayer as an Expression of Hope, 5 February 2023

Prayer as an Expression of Hope
40 Days of Prayer

Matthew 6:13b; Mark 13:24-26

Series Big Idea: We are beginning the new year on our knees, joining other Alliance churches for 40 Days of Prayer.
Big Idea: Prayer produces hope as we are reminded of the power and glory of God.
Someone has said humans can go
40 days without food
3 days without water
8 minutes without air
1 second without hope
Author Lewis B. Smedes put it this way:
Hope is to our spirits what oxygen is to our lungs. Lose hope and you die. They may not bury you for a while, but without hope you are dead inside. The only way to face the future is to fly straight into it on the wings of hope…hope is the energy of the soul. Hope is the power of tomorrow.   
Who could use a little more hope?
What exactly is hope? It is a verb. I can say, “I hope the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl next Sunday.” It is also a noun. We can be full of hope. The Greek word for hope used in the Bible is”elpis,” meaning to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.
Like faith, the power of hope lies not in the person hoping, but rather the object of hope. I can hope this chair will hold me up, but I have no bearing on whether or not it breaks. That belongs to the chair and its strength.
You can hope for anything…a new car, a perfect spouse, a wonderful job, 80 degrees and sunny! In the business world, it has been said that hope is not a strategy…”I hope we start to make some sales so we don’t go bankrupt.”
Today we finish our 40 Days of Prayer series with our Christian & Missionary Alliance family.
We’ve been looking at the LORD’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught His disciples to pray.
We began with prayer as Worship:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
Then prayer as Kingdom Partnership:
thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.  
Prayer as Petition:
Give us this day our daily bread.  
Prayer as Confession:
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those
who trespass against us.  
Prayer as Spiritual Warfare:
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

One of my frustrations about prayer is when people make it about a list instead of a relationship. Jason did a great job a few weeks ago preaching about “give us this day our daily bread.” We
are to ask God for things. He’s a good, good Father who gives good gifts to His children. But a wish list is not a relationship. We were created to know God and be known by Him. Prayer is not just talking to God. It’s not just talking with God. I submit to you that prayer is doing life with God.
Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica,
Never stop praying. (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NLT)

How can we do that?
If I close my eyes and fold my hands while I drive my car…
How can I pray when I’m asleep?
How can I pray when I’m at work focusing on a project?
If prayer is something we do, we must surely stop.
If prayer is something we are, we can never stop praying.

Allow me to explain what I mean. Ever since I married Heather, I have been involved in a marriage. Date nights are a part of marriage. Phone calls and texts are a part of marriage. But I’m still married when I’m asleep. I’m still married when I’m out of town. I’m still married when I’m at the office. Why? Because marriage is about a relationship.
I have a different relationship with the barista at Biggby Coffee. I go there for a transaction…I ask for tea, I pay the barista, and they give me tea. Period.
Tragically, many treat prayer like a barista transaction. God, this is what I want. Give it to me. Now, please. If not, I will be angry, doubt You, or even abandon You.
Prayer is not about a transaction. Prayer is about a relationship, and relationships are not just what we do, but who we are.
It is vital for us to have “dates” with God where we set aside everything and focus on Him. For many, closing the eyes, bowing the head, and folding the hands can aid in that focus. But prayer doesn’t end when we say amen. Our relationship with God continues throughout the day and night.

Never stop praying. (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NLT)
Today’s theme is Prayer as an Expression of Hope:
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Why is this an expression of hope?
God and His Kingdom are forever.
Last week I was driving around my old stomping grounds in Ann Arbor. It’s been about seven and a half years since we moved from Michigan to Toledo, and in less than a decade, so much has changed. New people live in many of the homes in our old neighborhood. Stores I used to frequent have closed. I ate breakfast in a new restaurant in space that used to be a different establishment.
I drove by The Big House—Michigan Stadium—and what used to be a cutting edge, high tech video board has been taken down, most likely to be replaced by an even brighter, higher-definition one.
Everywhere we look, our world is changing. Few people stay at the same company throughout their career. Little people grow up to become big people. The weather is constantly changing. People even change spouses when their marriages fail.
It’s no wonder people are desperate for hope. One pastor recently wrote, “We no longer trust the government, the medical profession, the judicial system, our academic institutions, or our churches.”
But God and His Kingdom are forever! That’s real hope. One of Jesus’ best friends, Peter, wrote,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, (1 Peter 1:3, NIV)
A living hope. Jesus died to give us hope, forgiveness, peace, reconciliation to our heavenly Father, but then rose from the dead. That’s real power! That’s real hope!
When we hope in temporary things, we’ll always be disappointed. They become false hope. Paul said to his apprentice, Timothy…
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17, NIV)
Followers of Jesus view their resources as something to steward, to share, not something to worship. Where is your hope today?
Even in the midst of trials, we can have hope. In fact, it is through trails that we encounter hope. Listen to these words:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Romans 5:3-5, NLT)
When is the last time you rejoiced over your problems and trials? It sounds crazy, right, but you can trust God’s Word to be true. None of us enjoy suffering, but suffering shapes us. It develops our character. It makes us stronger.
For the past five weeks or so, Heather has been using crutches due to a broken foot. The crutches are uncomfortable and she is using her arms in ways she’s never done before, but those muscles are getting stronger. In the same way, when we are tested, our character grows. Furthermore, we’re reminded of our weaknesses, how little we can control, and the hope of heaven. The hope of salvation. The hope of eternity with God.
Some of you are struggling right now, and I want to encourage you and tell you two things:
1.    You are seen. God sees you. If you’ve shared with others, they see you. You are loved. You are accepted. You matter. You belong here. You are family. No matter what you’ve done.
    Your story is not over. If you are a follower of Jesus, the best is yet to come. I promise! Here’s a glimpse of what’s ahead:
“At that time, after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:24-26, NLT)
That’s hope! That’s what we have to look forward to very soon! Be encouraged, family.
This prayer in Romans perfectly describes how I feel about you.
I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NLT)
Please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at the end of verse 13.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:13b, NKJV)
How many of you see that? How many of you don’t? This is called the doxology, and it’s missing in many Bible translations, though there’s probably a footnote somewhere. Let Dr. Scot McKnight explain:
Readers of most editions of the Bible will find a note that the best and earliest manuscripts do not have the commonly recited doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” (KJV). Neither does Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1 – 4 have a doxology. Those words appear to have been formed on the basis of 1 Chronicles 29:11 – 13 by someone later than Jesus and the writing of the gospel of Matthew; the doxology was added to the Lord’s Prayer in public prayer, and then was gradually added to the text of the New Testament itself. We recite them today because the public recitation of the Lord’s Prayer seems incomplete without such an ending.
The Story of God Bible Commentary)
It’s a fitting conclusion to the prayer, reminding us that God is worthy of our praise. He is all-powerful. There is evidence of His Kingdom breaking forth here on earth, but more is to come.
As we pray, we can praise and prepare for eternity.
The next life will be filled with music, praise, and adoration. I don’t expect to play a harp on a cloud, but we will certainly worship Almighty God. When we sing, we prepare. When we look back at Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the miraculous resurrection, we are reminded of who he is and why he is worthy.
Jesus Messiah
All our hope is in you, Jesus, the light of the world!

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

You can watch this video and others at the First Alliance Church Video Library

Birth: Woman of Danger, 23 December 2018

Birth: Woman of Danger
Series—Mary Christmas
Luke 2:6-20

Series Overview: Mary may be the most underrated, godly character in the Bible (at least for Protestants!).

Big Idea: Mary was real, raw and dangerous…and so is King Jesus.

In January of 2003 the Discovery Channel began airing a show called MythBusters. It has continued as one if its oldest and most popular shows. Originally from Australia and now on the Science Channel, it has become a global phenomenon testing various popular beliefs and Internet rumors to see if they are true. The myths are ultimately rated “buster,” “plausible,” or “confirmed.”

It’s one thing to hold beliefs about sunburns, explosions, traffic patterns, or boarding airplanes. It’s quite another to entertain myths about the Bible and, ultimately, God. One of the most frustrating things for me as a follower of Jesus is hearing so-called Biblical quotes that are simply not, such as:

God helps those who help themselves.
Jesus turned water into grape juice instead of wine.
I’m good and, therefore, will go to heaven when I die.
Always pray with your eyes closed.
Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God.
Suffering is always the result of sin since true believers are rich and healthy.
The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.

These are all myths. They are false.

This Advent season is filled with its own myths.

We’re in the middle of an extended series on Mary, the mother of Jesus. It seems that she is possibly overrated by Catholics and underrated by us Protestants. She is arguably the most important female to ever walk this earth, not only for giving birth to Jesus but also for enduring the consequences of being pregnant out of wedlock, raising the Messiah, and witnessing His brutal death. She was specifically chosen by God to be Jesus’ mom for reasons we don’t entirely know, but good reasons nonetheless.

The center of God’s will is not the safest place to be, but often the most dangerous. Mary is often depicted as a sweet, innocent, almost angelic figure. The real Mary, however, was dangerous. She was dangerous to Augustus and Herod, claiming her son was born to be king. She had a dangerous mission that threatened the Jewish society and the Roman Empire. Rather than a somber-faced girl in a baby-blue robe, Scot McKnight says, “Mary was a muscular, wiry woman whose eyes were aglow with a dazzling hope for justice and whose body evoked a robust confidence in the God who was about to turn the world upside down through her son.”

To fully understand the story, we need to understand the context. We’ve sanitized the account, making it so quaint and comfortable. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than nativity scenes.

Unlike the myths of the season, Mary was real. Joseph was real. Jesus is real.

We’re using Luke’s biography of Jesus as our text this year, but the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel or “good news” convey a less than idyllic scene surrounding the “silent night.” Joseph nearly divorces Mary, Herod is scheming, babies are slaughtered, Joseph and his family become refugees in Egypt, and people are waiting for the king to die. Have you ever seen those scenes on Christmas cards?

Caesar Augustus was literally considered “son of God” in the lineage of his dad, Julius Caesar who was officially declared to be a god. Augustus brought peace to Rome and was considered its savior. His rise was considered good news or “gospel.” Perhaps you’ve heard words like god, lord, and gospel in the context of church, but these were words used of this political leader, the worshiped king of the Roman empire.

Last Sunday we examined the first five verses of Luke chapter two, the journey to Bethlehem. Dr. Luke continues…

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:6-7)

You’ve heard there was no room for them in the inn, right? There are actually two meanings for our English word “inn.” The first is a place you would stay, but the other is a guest room as translated here. There’s no innkeeper. It was likely Joseph and Mary went to a relative’s home. There’s nothing in the Bible about a stable or barn—just a manger. The manger may have been in an open-air living area like a patio. Many believe this was a house where people typically stayed upstairs with the ground floor used for animals…though there is actually no mention of any animals. The upstairs was probably full of people doing exactly what Joseph and Mary were doing—registering in the census. They’re likely in the bottom area of a full house. Baby Jesus may have been held by his aunts, uncles and cousins on his birthday.

Why does Luke mention the manger? It was a sign to the shepherds.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9)

Angels are often scaring people. I suppose if I encountered one, I might freak out a bit, myself!

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Shepherds are not exactly common in our culture today, but in biblical times many cared for sheep. You might know the 23rd Psalm which begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The birth of the Good Shepherd—Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah—was announced to shepherds long before the news hit CNN or Twitter!

This is familiar language to the shepherds who knew Augustus as savior. They were now confronted with two kings; Augustus and Jesus. The conflict between them is beginning, between God and the powers of this world. Within a century or so, this baby would be so threatening to the successors of Augustus that followers of Jesus would be persecuted and martyred, simply for their faith.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)

Augustus didn’t exactly have angels announcing His birth.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:15)

They needed to do something to respond to the celestial symphony! Here’s a tip: if an angel guides you to something historic, go!

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Luke 2:16-18)

Lowly shepherds were the first to meet the Messiah and the first to spread the word. We can’t imagine the significance of this news. The Messiah had been prophesied for centuries. It was a bigger deal than us waiting for someone to cure cancer…or for the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns to make it to the Super Bowl! Generations had waited! The King of kings had arrived, but in the most humble, unexpected manner.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

These are common words in Judaism for thinking about events in one’s life so one could make sense of and narrate what God was doing in history. This wasn’t silent meditation, but rather reflecting to interpret. She was figuring out what God was doing in the world while people were singing and dancing and dreaming of the end of Augustus’ rule. She would tell the story orally, a tale of two kings. Much of what we read in the Bible most likely came from her lips.

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:20)

The natural response to an encounter with God is praise and worship. This is why we sing when we gather. This is why we give thanks. This is why we devote ourselves to God and His commands. He’s God and we’re not.

I often say the two most important questions in the world are

Who is God?
Who am I?

They are questions of identity. How you answer those two questions will impact everything you do and define who you are.

So What?

There are many myths about the Christmas story. Does it really matter if the manger was made of wood or rock? No. Is it a game-changer to have wise men or magi in the nativity scene or not? Of course not. Can we observe Jesus’ birthday on December 25 even if he was almost certainly born in the springtime? Sure.

Perhaps the greatest myth of all in the account of the birth of Jesus is that somehow the characters are super-human. They aren’t real. It’s fantasy. Jesus was God so therefore never pooped or cried, Mary floated above the earth like an angel, effortlessly giving birth without a whimper or tear. Joseph—well, Joseph just stood there watching while his wife and step son get all of the attention. The animals smelled like Febreze. The night was silent and perfect, tranquil and sweet.

But our understanding of Mary is important. She wasn’t an angel, hovering just above the ground. Nor was she a weak girl who disappears after the birth of Jesus—as we will see next Sunday. She was a gritty, godly young woman who encountered angels, brought God into our world, spoke out about injustice, and would experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood throughout the 33 years of Jesus’ life.

Our understanding of Jesus is even more important. His birth wasn’t a myth. You can visit Bethlehem today in Israel. He didn’t stay in the manger, meek and mild. His birth was highly unusual, yet the perfect fulfillment of centuries-old prophecies. And the birth was just the beginning. He didn’t stay the tiny, infant Jesus Will Ferrell prayed to in Talladega Nights. He became a man…but not just any man. The God-man. Jesus is fully human and yet fully God.

It might not have been a silent night, but there were no paparazzi or bloggers at his birth. Yet God came to earth, Emmanuel, God with us. The word “incarnation” is often used this time of year. It means to embody, to exemplify, to manifest. One of Jesus’ best friends described the incarnation of God this way:

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. (John 1:14)

The late Eugene Peterson used these words:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (John 1:14a, The Message)

Christmas was just the beginning of the story. That little baby in the pictures came to live, teach, model for us what it means to be human. Then he died for our sins and failures, and rose from the dead

We often call this season “advent,” or waiting. Many of you are eagerly waiting and anticipating the opening of those gifts under the tree. Maybe you’re excited about being with loved ones. Perhaps you’re anxious about the loneliness, depression, or sadness you expect this Christmas. Regardless of your attitude toward Tuesday, I want to you to know we are waiting for something even greater than Christmas dinner or gifts from Amazon. We are waiting for the return of the King.

Today we stand between the first arrival of Jesus—as a baby—and the promised second coming of Jesus—as the King of kings and LORD of lords.

Christmas is not really about a baby or presents or even family. It’s about a dangerous woman giving birth to a dangerous man who would threaten the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God. It’s not about us, but about God, his love for his creation, and his audacious plan to seek and save humanity from the curse of sin and death. Herod had every right to be threatened by the birth of King Jesus, even though he appeared tender and mild. For two thousand years, men, women and children have been given the opportunity to follow the kings of this world or King Jesus. Even today, we choose each morning whether we will be subjects of our desires or God’s.

Don’t buy the myth that Jesus is a fairy tale figure or some spineless wimp. He began a revolution of love that grows each day, leading a rebellion against fear, evil, and destruction. He sacrificed his own life to prove his love was real, and he’s inviting you to follow him.

There’s a popular Christmas figure called Elf on a Shelf. Don’t let Jesus be your God on a shelf…or baby in a manger. He wants to be your King, your leader, your LORD. And he’ll change your life if you let him. He doesn’t guarantee lollipops and rainbows, but He promises to never abandon you. He will be with you through life’s storms. He’ll give you peace, hope, joy, and love. It will be the best Christmas gift you’ve ever received.

Credits: some ideas from
The Real Mary by Scot McKnight

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

Sower: Soils & Spoils, 6 August 2017

Sower: Soils & Spoils
Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus
Mark 4:1-20

Series Big Idea:
The shortest gospel is filled with good news about Jesus!

Big Idea: Not everyone is ready to enter the kingdom of God…are you?

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. (Mark 4:1)

Jesus is so popular he can’t even just stand up and speak. The crowds will mob him so he does his teaching from a boat.

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. (Mark 4:2-3)

One hundred years ago the most common occupation in the United States was farmer. Today, of course, it is rare to meet a full-time farmer, but everyone in Jesus’ audience knew about farming. If they wanted to eat, they needed to farm—or live near someone who did! Jesus begins by commanding them to listen. Not everyone would. Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. Unlike today’s sophisticated farms, the ordinary Jewish farmer had a small plot of land, used every inch, scattered seed everywhere and then plowed it under along with the thorns, weeds, and anything else on the ground.

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. (Mark 4:4)

Those stinkin’ birds! Okay, some birds are wonderful, but others are annoying. If you scatter seed without caring for it, they will disappear!

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (Mark 4:5-6)

This is common, too. Plants start to grow but die without strong roots.

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. (Mark 4:7)

Here we see another crop killer…thorns.

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:8)

Obviously this is what is supposed to happen, though Jesus surprised the crowd with these numbers since an average harvest was only seven or eight times the amount of seed sown and a good harvest would be about ten times.

Then Jesus said,
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9)

He says again, listen! He knows not everyone will hear. Parables reveal the truth to some while concealing it from the rebellious.

Jesus is not giving instructions on agriculture. There’s a much deeper message, but it wasn’t obvious. In fact…

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 

“ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:10-12)

They missed it! Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10.

In revelation, God’s people are trained about the requirements of the kingdom.
In concealment, those who oppose God never understand the kingdom.

Much of Jesus’ teachings was about the kingdom of God, a radical contrast to the kingdoms of this world. Jesus was a revolutionary declaring an alternative reality, a different society, casting visions for a counter-cultural life.

His enemies rejected his teaching.
The crowds were interested in his miracles but not his teaching.

Parables allowed those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness would be filled. It separated the curious from the true seekers. Seek and you will find.

By the way, I love how Jesus explained the parable not only to the Twelve but also the others who stuck around to hear the exposition. The only thing that seems to separate those on the inside of Jesus’ explanation and those on the outside is their pursuit of God.

However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. 

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to lead us, teach us, and guide us.

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? (Mark 4:13)

I wish I could hear his tone of voice! He was, of course, intentional about how he coded his message but maybe did too good of a job since his closest friends were clueless!

The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark 4:14-15)

Israel has been in exile and this is a picture of Go sowing Israel again in her own land, restoring their fortunes, making the family farm fruitful again. They expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel in an explosive way, not slowly like farming.
This is about the word of God, the inauguration of the kingdom. It is coming, but it won’t be as they expect it. It won’t happen instantly, but it will eventually become a reality…and we are in the midst of that today, heaven kissing earth, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done here as it is in heaven. It is not done with power like a military coup, but rather humbly, unobtrusive, and coexisting with evil, an unpopular message with patriotic Jewish seeking revolt.

Satan loves to steal. He is a deceiver. His goal is to keep us from God.

Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.
But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)

Easy come, easy go. I love God until life gets hard and then I blame him for my trials and walk away. This is so tragically common today as it was then.

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)

Can you relate? I can’t imagine anyone in our culture tempted by wealth or worries! Ha! The world can be very attractive, yet never truly satisfying. Money will make you happy…for a while. But only following Jesus the Messiah will bring true satisfaction, peace, hope, and joy.

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
(Mark 4:20)

That’s where I want to sow…into the good soil.
That’s what I want my life to be…good soil.

So What?

First, we must be intentional when we sow. We need to work smart, not just hard. A few weeks ago I mentioned six words to define our mission:

Love God.
Love Others.
Make Disciples.

Making disciples means following Jesus and helping others follow Jesus, passing the baton of faith, mentoring and investing in the lives of others.

If you recall I mentioned how Jesus spent time praying before choosing his twelve disciples. Similarly, we are not to just randomly scatter seed. We are to love everyone, but we are not supposed to invest equally in the lives of everyone we meet. Some people are FAT: faithful, available, and teachable. They are good soil. They will pass the baton of faith to others (2 Timothy 2:2) and reproduce. Other people have no interest in following Jesus. They’re too busy, too selfish, too prideful, too distracted. Two weeks ago I challenged you to ask, “God, who do You want me to disciple?”

Obviously not everyone you devote time and energy to will yield the same results. Some people, like Judas, will not produce good fruit. Others, however, will yield a great harvest.

Second, we must be patient and persevere when we sow. You can’t scatter seed today and expect a harvest tomorrow. Jesus warns the soil must receive attention. Even today farmers water, weed, fertilize, and pray for adequate sunshine in order for the seeds to form deep roots and abundant fruit.

Many of you served at this summer’s Sports & Arts Camp and I want to say our work is not done. It’s just beginning! We sowed seed, but we need to water it, weed it, fertilize it, and persevere until it produces a harvest.

Finally, we must give attention to our own soil. How is your heart? Are the investments of others into you paying off? Are you a good disciple? Are you pursuing God, studying the Bible, devoted to prayer, sharing your faith, serving the poor, living a generous life, and discipling others? Or are you distracted with screens, busy with hobbies, and growing a personal garden of weeds?

It is my prayer for you, myself, and all of us at First Alliance that we would know, share, and experience the kingdom of God and that God would produce a great harvest in and through us in Toledo and beyond for His glory.

The Lord’s Prayer

Credits: some ideas from NT Wright, J. Vernon McGee, Scott Pinzon, Richard Niell Donovan, and David Garland.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
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