God is Near to You

christmas night

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

I suspect Christmas is about far more than surrounding ourselves with uplifting music and familiar tunes during the shortest days of the year. I suspect that Christmas is about something far more than “doing what we do” because it’s “what we did” when we were children. Christmas resonates with something inside of us. There is something about the story of God coming into the world to live with us and to be a part of our lives that helps us to connect with God in a more deep and meaningful way. And that’s why the story of “Immanuel” – “God is near to us” – is a story that we need to hear over and over again as we journey through life.

God is far more than an indescribable Principle, or Being, that exists far beyond what we know and experience in our daily lives. God is more than a distant “Being” who lives up in the sky at a safe distance, but who always seems to know whether we’ve been naughty or nice. God stands at the center of our deepest longings as human beings. And the Good News of Christmas is that the same God that we long for in the very center of our being is a God who comes into our world to be near us.

God is near to us when we welcome a new child, or grandchild, into our lives; and God is with us while we’re trying our best to raise that child in a crazy world. God is near to us when we awaken in the morning and go to work, and God is near to us when we come home at the end of the day exhausted and collapse in our favorite chair. God is near to us during those moments in life when we are living on top of the world, and God is near to us when we don’t know how we can possibly make it even one more day. God is near to us when we are strong and healthy. God is near to us as we age and discover that we are not as much in control of our lives and futures as we imagined. And God even promises to be near to us as we close our eyes for the very last time and quietly slip into Eternity as so many others have before us.

In a little, tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, God comes into the world because God wants to be a part of our lives and a part of every moment that we live. Jesus, the Child in the manger that we celebrate every Christmas, grew up to be a Man who told us that He will be with us “even to the end of the Age.” That’s a word of Good News, isn’t it? At the center of every Christmas, we find a God who walks with us every day. “God is near to us” in every moment filled with joy and celebration, and “God is near to us” in every moment when we need God’s hand to dry our tears.

May God bless you with a renewed awareness of the fact that “God is near to you” as you gather with those that you love and celebrate Christmas this year. And may you enter the New Year with a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life every day.

Merry Christmas!

Click Here for This Year’s Christmas Message

What do You Want Christmas to be Like?

christmas-tree

What do you want Christmas to be like this year?

Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.

And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!

But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.

But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.

We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.

We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Is Your Congregation Struggling to Survive?

Crucifixion Picture

Many congregations are moving through challenging times these days.

Immediately after World War II, the “builders” got to work; and church buildings, some of them quite large, popped up everywhere. Many church buildings were filled to capacity in the 1950’s and some congregations even needed to put chairs in the aisles on special occasions. But, as we moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, things began to change. People became suspicious of institutions of every kind. But, even in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many church buildings were still almost full because the “builders” kept coming to worship and were incredibly faithful in both their attendance and financial support.

But things continued to change. The “builders” began to age and even die. Congregations began to see worship attendance falling and budget deficits rising. And congregations began to respond to that change in two different ways: (1) Some congregations turned inward and chopped away at their ministry to save money, and (2) Other congregations turned to God in prayer, sought spiritual renewal, and searched for new and exciting ways to engage in mission and ministry.

In the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet two very different men.

One of the men hanging on a cross beside Jesus cried out in desperation saying: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” This was a cry for survival. Maybe the man on the cross was asking for one more day to make amends with those he had hurt. Maybe he wanted to live for another month, another year, or even another decade. But, what we do know is that this man’s desperate plea for survival wasn’t answered. He didn’t get what he wanted; and, perhaps, he even died in sad desperation. But, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Didn’t Jesus once say that those who try to save their own lives are going to lose them? (Matthew 16:25)

But, the other man who was hanging on the cross beside Jesus did something very different. He began by confessing that he had gotten himself into a pickle; and that, in some ways, he was only reaping what he had sowed. And then, in a moment of faith, he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Here, we have a man of faith. This man, who cried out to Jesus in the same desperate situation said, “Jesus, please take me wherever You want to take me.” He entrusted everything to Jesus alone. And, in that moment of faith, he heard a promise: “I will remember you,” Jesus says, “and you will be with me in Paradise.” And those words shouldn’t surprise us either. Didn’t Jesus tells us that those who give up their life for His sake and who trust in Him alone are going to find it? (Matthew 10:39) Didn’t Jesus also tell us that He was going to build the Church and that even the gates of Hell would not prevail against it? (Matthew 16:17-19)

Moses once told the people of Israel: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) And the story of Jesus’ crucifixion does the very same thing.

Congregations that turn inward and try to “survive” by chopping away at their ministries to save money are choosing a perilous path that often leads to death. Congregations that seek renewal through prayer and daily devotion and that entrust their futures to Jesus, in difficult times, often find new life and exciting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others because renewal often brings a deeper sense of God’s guiding hand in life and in the ministry of the Church.

Jesus has clearly told us that He has something special planned for us, and that He’s going to carry us into better days and into a future that’s going to be far better than any of us can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And that leaves us, our congregations, and even the whole Church with a question that needs to be answered: Do we want to fight to survive for another year or even another decade, or do we want to follow Jesus into a future where our ministry will continue to grow and thrive even in challenging times? The choice is ours.

Click Here for This Week’s Message