Reflecting on My First Christmas as a Pastor

My first Christmas as a pastor is in the books.

That is a statement that is still humbling to think about. I had the privilege to walk two congregations through the season of Advent and into the Christmas season. I hope the joy never fades, because it was an amazing experience. There is a lot that is on my mind, as I process all that has taken place in the past days and weeks.

One of the first things that I am aware of is that I could not lead without the support of my two congregations. I am blessed to be the pastor of two very loving and supportive congregations. Mackville and Antioch receive a lot of first appointment pastors, and so the people are continually showing a new pastor “the ropes.” I am appreciative of the grace and support that was shown as I walked through my first Advent and Christmas. I was told what was important to the two congregations, but also given the support to try new things. That was important to me, and I’ll never forget it.

I’m still in awe of what took place on Christmas Eve. Mackville UMC hosts the community Christmas Eve service. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect attendance wise. This was a combination of multiple reasons. One, I was given a rough guess on an attendance from previous years. Two, the last community service we did had a decent attendance, but nothing that you could set as a marker for Christmas Eve. Finally, I’m new and had no idea what to expect. Though we did not do an official count, we estimated more than 80 people were in attendance. The church was entirely filled. That still amazes me. We know there were people who had never been in our church before, which was also a blessing. Hopefully, we will be able to retain some of the people after the holiday season.

The service, itself, was just a joyful experience. We collected a special offering for Harvesting Hope, which is a food bank located in Danville. The amount collected was humbling and a sign of God’s love for all people. I hope to do a special offering on Christmas Eve next year and ever year I’m in ministry. Also, it was a joy to have a great friend and mentor in Jonathan Powers with us that evening. I’m fairly sure the evening would not have gone as well without his leading in music. He did an amazing job, and the community was quite blessed by his leadership.

Finally, the way the calendar worked itself out was something special this year for a first-year pastor. To have Christmas fall on a Sunday was a huge blessing and opportunity. We did a relaxed service at both churches. It was a great way to spend Christmas morning. I was nearly in tears, during the prayer time, at one church. I was overcome with awe of leading a congregation in worship on Christmas.

I won’t make a comment about the churches that did close on Christmas morning other than to say these communities missed a great opportunity to share the love of Christ. Next year, Christmas is on a Tuesday. The opportunity to preach both on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning will be lost, and won’t be back again until 2016. I wonder what we could do on Christmas Day in 2012 that would be appropriately worshipful. I’m thinking of opening the churches for a time of evening prayer and reflection. It is something that I am thinking about, especially going into the new year.

For now, Christmas is behind me as a new pastor. In a way, I’m already looking ahead to Lent. It will be here before we know it. I probably won’t be as nervous, because of the experiences this Christmas season.

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Christmas Message: The True Christmas Story

It’s Christmas Day! The day, and the Christmas season, we have anticipated has arrived.

Maybe you’ve already opened the gifts, or even peeked into your stockings. Perhaps the Christmas dinner is already getting started, and you can taste the rolls and the great food. Or maybe you are just waiting to leave here, so you can get started on the feast and the celebration.

We’ve been waiting for this day for a while now. As we’ve waited, we’ve heard a story proclaimed about what this day means. It’s a story of celebrating our love of consumerism and great deals. A story about how spending was important to the economy’s stability going into 2012. A story that says Christmas is something that can be easily unpacked in early October, and easily put back away, just days before the actual Christmas celebration.

But that’s not the story that brings us here today. It’s not the reason we truly celebrate today. It is not the reason we are filled with joy, with hope, and with peace – not just today, but each and every day. We are here because the “Word became human and made his home among us.” On this Christmas Day, we celebrate not because we received that item that we wanted, or even because we will bite down on great turkey or ham in a few hours, but because Christ came and dwelt among us.

This is our great story of Christmas. The story of Christ making his long-expected arrival on earth  and dwelling among us. This wasn’t simply just an act of “pitching his tent,” which is what the Greek for making his home or dwelling means. It was an act of coming to earth to live with his people, to share life with us, to teach us about how to come into a relationship with God, and to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. It is, without a doubt, the greatest story that has ever been told, and a story we are called to share with everyone from Mackville and Perryville and all points in between and throughout the world.

The first verses of John’s Gospel don’t give us descriptions about Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus Christ, or even the visit by the Shepherds and the Wise Men. It is absent of the stories that we are familiar with as it relates to Christmas. What these verses, the Prologue of John’s Gospel, give us is a theologically rich section of Scripture that tells us about Christ, why he came, and what it means to receive Christ at all times.

One of the first things we notice about Christ in this passage is that “[i]n the beginning the Word already existed.” It’s easy to get caught up in the pageantry of Christmas and fall into the trap of believing that Christ began to exist on Christmas morning. That at Jesus’ birth, we also experienced the birth of Christ’s existence. This is simply not the case. John tells us that the Word, Christ the Son of God, existed before creation came into existence. Christ was always a part of God. There was never a moment when Christ did not exist. He was always around.

There is something deeper here than just simply saying that Christ always existed. He existed for a purpose. That purpose is expressed in how John is using the term “word.” It comes from a Greek term that suggests a greater reason for something. In using this idea, John is saying that Christ didn’t exist merely for the fun of it, but he was the reason the world existed.

As we see in this passage, Christ is the reason the world was created. God created the world through him. As one commentator suggests, God was the creator who had the vision for creation, while Christ, the Word, was the person who saw to its creation. Christ gives life and expression to our souls and our creation. Everything was created for him and by him.

In a way then, what we see at Christmas is the beginning stages of the new creation. John uses a phrase that is an exact copy of the phrase used to start Genesis. He writes, “In the beginning.” Christ was part of the creation of the world. Now, Christ will be part of the new creation that will be created when people join in relationship with him. On Christmas morning, the process of recreating humanity and all of creation back into God’s image and plan began. It was a process that carried forth throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry and is ongoing today through the work of the Holy Spirit.

On Christmas morning, Christ came and took on the form of a human. This is the nature of the incarnation, which means Christ, the Word, taking on the form of a human, in the person of Jesus, to live among us. We believe and hold that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. You cannot separate the human from the divine. Both are expressed and are seen in the life of Christ. In the manager on Christmas morning was God and man, together, two natures, one person.

The incarnation of Christ says something for us today. We can approach Christ, and fully believe in him, because he shared life with us. Christ experienced life. He felt what is to encounter temptation. He felt the loss of a loved one. He felt the rejection of his entire hometown, and his people. Christ is approachable, because he took on the form of his people and lived among us.

Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Son of God, wasn’t merely for entertainment. He didn’t come just to share life with us. He came with a purpose. He came to show us the light, which Christ himself is for all of us, as Christ tells us in John 8:12.

Christ came into our dark world and shone the light of God into it. This light overcomes the darkness in the world. Sin cannot overcome the light of God. The light of God, the Son of God, overcomes the darkness. The light of Christ does this by teaching us how to be in a relationship with God by living lives of holiness and obedience toward God. The light shines in our world and points us to God’s wishes and desires.

The light that comes from Christ is available to all of us today, as it was to everyone in Jesus’ time. We each have a choice of whether or not we will receive Christ. This means a decision on our parts of how we will live for Christ. John touches on this. He says that some recognized Christ, but some did not. This gets to the heart of what it means for us to accept Christ, and to live in relationship with Christ. In essence, do we believe that Christ came and dwelt among us and does that life, does that light impact our lives and how we interact with our community and our world?

To those who accept this light, there is a great privilege of being known as children of God. We are part of God’s family. By following the light from Christ, and seeking to live each day in relationship with God, we become members of God’s family. Even more, Christ begins to live in us and transforms us into a new creation by our acceptance and reception of his light. To follow the light of Christ is to live for Christmas and the reality that Christ came into this world, not just on December 25, but each and every day.

However, those who reject Christ are known as children of darkness. For children of darkness do not know God. They follow a light that does not come from God, but comes of this world. It is a light that leads not to eternal life, but to sin, death, and despair. To follow the darkness means to separate ourselves from the life-changing and hope-giving light of Christ.

Perhaps the question for each of us, and myself included, is this: on this Christmas morning, whose light are we following? Whose light is impacting us in the depths of our souls and dictating how we are interacting with our neighbors and all of God’s people?

This is a question not just for this Christmas morning, but each day. We should live each day in the reality that Christ came and will come again. We should live in the reality that Christ is the reason for our existence, that calls us to live in response. For when we do, we will be filled with the joy of Christmas, the peace of a Savior, and the hope of all time.

And that is the true Christmas story worth sharing today and at all times.

Christmas Eve Sermon: Make Room for Christ

Ever been on a 10-day road trip?

Now, I enjoy traveling, but 10 days on the road seems excessive to me. There is a lot involved in these trips. There is the extra luggage to pack. There are the roads to navigate. And then, there are the hotels to reserve.

In our modern ways of traveling, a 10-day road trip is mostly two days of actual traveling and eight days spent in a given location. While a 10 day trip is long, we are mostly spending this trip doing what we wanted to be doing – either enjoying our vacations or doing some form of business.

Regardless whether we enjoy the 10-day road trip, many of us would not schedule a 10-day trip if our loved one was pregnant and nearing their due date. The longest trip we would probably contemplate would be to the grocery store. A 10-day journey that would have only taken us from point A to point B would have been inconceivable to us. Our medical practitioners would advise us of the great risks we would be taking in going on such a journey. We just would not want to risk the welfare of the child to take on such a journey.

Yet, this is the situation Joseph and Mary find themselves in our passage this evening. They were forced to take this dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in the ordered Roman Census. The Census required people to return to their ancestral homes, which meant Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem.

Even if she had property there, Mary’s attendance in Bethlehem was likely not needed, but she goes on the trip. Why? We can only guess. Perhaps Joseph was concerned for Mary delivering the baby alone and wanted to take her with him. Perhaps Joseph was concerned for Mary’s welfare and wanted to protect her. Rumors would have been rampant about Mary’s pregnancy, and likely no one believed her if she told people that the baby was the expected Messiah conceived by the Holy Spirit. It would have been likely that had Joseph gone on this journey alone, Mary would have faced adultery accusations and might have been killed. Her participation on this journey to Bethlehem might have been to protect her. This was not an easy journey.

Nor was it an easy visit once they arrived in Bethlehem. They probably would have stopped at Joseph’s home first, only to find out that the guest room was filled. Joseph’s family would have also been in for the Census, and there would have been no room for Mary, especially with as close as she was to her due date. The only option would have been to go to the barn area, which in some ancient homes would have been a room in the house or just off to the side.

This is strange to us. We would never think about giving birth to our children in a barn. Yet, this was the only option available to Mary on this night. From his very birth, Jesus faced a series of rejections that is symbolic of there being no room for him at Joseph’s home. In those days, a central aspect of hospitality would have been to provide room for a traveler. Each home would have had a guest room to use to welcome travelers. On this night, the room was occupied and no one came to care for Mary. She and Joseph were left alone in the dirtiness of a barn. They were rejected by the world in their time of deepest need.

It was in this barn area that the world received the most precious of gifts – the birth of the long-expected Son of God. On this night, God ushered in the greatest act of salvation and began the process of redeeming the world back into a relationship with God. The expectation of a Savior, who would redeem the people of Israel, was fulfilled on this night in the most unexpected of ways.

Even in this idea of Christ coming in the most unexpected ways, we can see that Jesus’ birth, life, and ministry ran against the basic ideas many of that time had for the coming Messiah. They had no room for a Messiah that did not fit their expectations and desires.

Jesus came as the Christ, the anointed Messiah, who is the Son of God and the King of Kings. His birth fulfilled the greatest prophesies very foretold about God sending a Savior, God’s own Son, to the world. He would come as the “Mediator between God and humanity who as truly God” would “liberate humanity from the power of sin by the death on the cross.” Christ came into the world with a purpose. As the Son of God, his mission was to bring humanity back into a relationship with God. Because our acts of disobedience that began with Adam and Eve and which we continue to do today, our relationship with God was broken. Something was needed in order to restore this relation back to its original intent. In Leviticus, we see the actions came in a sin sacrifice, but the sacrifice was only for a moment. Jesus’ birth anticipates his death and resurrection, for this was his mission – to die on the cross and to be the ultimate mediator between God and humanity. It is through the belief that Christ died for us that we can be renewed and restored in our relationship with God.

But, the people of Israel at that time had no room for a Savior, a Messiah, who had to die for them. They believed that because they were born into the faith, they were in a good relationship with God. They believed that if they followed all the rules, they were righteous. They had no room for a Savior who would challenge their understandings of God, or come to redeem all people, include those outside the church.

Christ did not just come as Savior, but also as King and Lord. We sometimes forget that Christ is not just our Savior, but he is also the Lord of our lives. On Christmas Day, Christ’s birth inaugurated his reign as the King who sat on the throne of David. Jesus is the promised Son of David, who inherited the eternal kingdom promised to David. In 2 Samuel 7, we begin to see that David’s kingdom would never end and that God’s kingdom would come about through this kingdom. In Jesus’ birth, the kingdom of God was inaugurated, a kingdom that places Jesus as the Lord. It is a kingdom that shows us what it means to live as followers of Christ, not just in our personal lives, but in our interactions with our communities and our world. It is a kingdom that will never end.

But the people did not have room for this kingdom, because Christ did not come in the way they expected. He came in the most humble of ways. He was born to a family that was poor and not of great notoriety. The manner in which Jesus was born immediately identified the Son of God with the poor, the forgotten, the neglected, the rejected, and the outcast. They had no room for a servant-leadership form of a King who came “not to be served but to serve.” Even more, the people had no room for a King who did not fit their military needs. The expectation of the people was that the Son of God would come and would restore the people of Israel. They expected it would be a military conquest and victory over the Roman Empire. Christ did restore the kingdom, but did so by offering himself as an act of obedience to God. The kingdom of God reigns today, because Christ, the Son of God, entered the world and redeemed the world back to God, not by the world’s expectations, but by the Father’s expectations.

What about us? Do we have room for Jesus in our own lives, and in the lives of our communities? Our gut answer might be to say, “Yes.” We are here on this Christmas Eve and worshiping as a community with song and praises directed to Christ our King. Let us not be fooled into believing our own hype of our own righteousness. Whether or not we have made room for Christ in our lives is based on who we have given priority to in our lives.

We have no room for Christ if we decide, by word or action, that our gods or idols, such as our finances, our jobs, and our allegiances, are more important than our relationship with God. We have no room for Christ if we place our own need to be right over God’s authority. We have no room for Christ if we act like the Jewish Scribes in Matthew 2. When the Wise Men came to find where the Messiah was, the Scribes knew where to go but refused to look. We have no room for Christ when we know where to seek Christ, in Scripture and in community with other believers, yet never go out to find him. We have no room for Christ if we are unwilling to live into Christ’s example by seeking to live in peace with one another, to seek justice and reconciliation, to proclaim peace and hope, and to be a blessing to others in need.

There are many other places that we might not make room for Christ, but hear this good news: even when we have not made room for Christ, Christ has made room for us. When we are disobedient, the Son of God made room for us by taking on the form of a human, experiencing the life we experience, and gave himself up for us in the ultimate gift of love and grace. We can experience peace, joy, hope, and love because the Son of God came and lives today.

It’s an experience we can live into this Christmas season. Christ calls all of us to move into a posture that allows us to make room for the Son of God to live and be manifest in our lives. We do so first by freely accepting the gift of grace given to us through Jesus Christ. Simply accepting the greatest gift begins the process of making room for Christ. As well, we must allow the Holy Spirit to work in us to allow Christ to be more at the center of our lives. We make room for Christ by becoming less, and allowing Christ to be at the center of our lives, our worldview, and our interactions with others. Christ came to be at the center of our lives and not an afterthought.

On this Christmas Eve night, on this night that we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, have you made room for Christ in your life? Is Christ the center of your life? Is following Jesus what guides your interactions with others? Are you growing in the image of Christ daily?

No matter how you answered these questions, there is no better night to renew our walk with Christ than on this night of celebrating his initial coming, as we await his return. In a moment, we will have a time of celebration of communion. I invite you to spend some time in prayer with Christ and make room for Christ by allowing him to be the center, maybe for the first time, maybe for the second time, maybe for the 100th time. Feel the grace, peace, and hope that comes from Christ as he transforms us into a living representation of his ongoing life.

May we all on this Christmas Eve night, and every day, make room for Christ in our hearts and in our lives.

Sunday’s Sermon: What Mary and Joseph Show Us About Peace

Nativity figurines are interesting decorations. For many of us, these are some of our most prized Christmas decorations.

At the parsonage, we have two sets. My set has ceramic figures and everyone is looking at the Baby Jesus, though the Wise Men are kept at a distance. We have another set that is so small, I have a hard time telling the characters apart.

There are things that make each of these sets unique and special. To be fair, I find some Nativity sets awkward. I don’t know how willing I am to buy a Nativity set where Mary and Joseph are bears, or cats, or preparing more for St. Patrick’s Day than Christ’s birth. Those are just some that are in the marketplace today.

No matter how a Nativity set is designed, whether it is made up of regal or rugged looking characters, there is a constant to these displays. That is that all the characters are looking at Baby Jesus with awe and reverence.

These Nativity sets are our interpretation of how the barn area, likely a place inside Joseph’s family home, might have looked. I wish they would tell the entire story. I wish they would show the fullness of how Joseph and Mary might have felt, especially during the nine months leading up to Jesus’ birth. If they did, I’m sure these sets would paint a different picture. It would tell of two people who were overwhelmed by God’s calling in their life, but who gave us a beautiful picture of obedience and God’s peace.

Today, I want to take a look at Mary and Joseph, who were the first recipients of the most beautiful and life changing gift we have ever received in Jesus Christ.

The person we know the least about is Joseph. Matthew and Luke offer the most descriptions of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, but neither give us much information about Joseph. Traditions have developed around Joseph. Some say he was older and more of a grandfather. Others claim he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Mostly these traditions have been created because we have felt the need to add to his life, so we might better know Jesus’ earthly father.

What little we know from Scripture paints a good portrait of Joseph’s life, and how he wrestled with the news that Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Matthew gives us the most detail. We learn that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In other words, they were engaged. The culture of the time required couples be in this legal relationship for one year before marriage. They would live apart from one another, but if one person did not want to go forward with the marriage they would need to get a legal divorce.

During this period, Joseph learned Mary was pregnant. Could you imagine what Joseph felt when Mary told him the news? She was pregnant, and the father was the Holy Spirit. She would be the mother to the Son of God, and his name would be Jesus.

Joseph had a difficult time believing Mary and had a decision to make. Would he seek a divorce? Legally, Joseph was required to seek a divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 states if you find something displeasing about your future wife, you were to seek a divorce. Mary’s pregnancy would have been displeasing to Joseph, but he struggled with this decision. The reason is that if Joseph made this a public divorce, Mary might have been killed. According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, the  penalty for sleeping with a betrothed virgin was the stoning of both the man and the woman. Now, Joseph was righteous and sought the divorce privately. He did this Mary would not be sentenced to death. Joseph’s righteousness came not from his obedience to the letter of the law, but because he was a witness of God’s love. Joseph showed a deep compassion for Mary, and the unborn child, by exhibiting grace and forgiveness.

This was not an easy decision. Joseph was likely distraught and struggled with this response. In this restless situation, Joseph tried to sleep. During his rest, Joseph had a visionary dream, perhaps a dream like the ones his namesake had in Genesis. An angel, a messenger of the Lord, appears. He tells Joseph that he should not be afraid. When Joseph felt a deep sense of restlessness and uneasiness about Mary’s pregnancy, God was there and offering peace. God’s peace came in the form of an assurance and words of comfort that God’s grace would surround him, and Mary. Joseph learned Mary was telling the truth. This son would be the long-awaited promised Messiah, the Son of God. Joseph would be the legal father to the King of King and the Prince of Peace. God comforted Joseph by giving him the promise of God’s presence. The promise of God’s presence was brought to life with the messenger telling Joseph the boy would be known as Emmanuel. This name means “God with us.” God’s peace surrounded Joseph and God promised to be with him, and with all of us.

Joseph responded to God’s grace of peace and presence. How did he respond? He took Mary as his wife. He protected and cared for her. The presence of God’s peace comforted Joseph so he could live peacefully and show mercy and compassion by accepting Mary and the baby.

Joseph isn’t the only one overwhelmed by God’s desires. So is Mary. In the first chapter of Luke, we learn Mary, who was likely between the ages of 13-15, was from Nazareth, a town which wasn’t anything to write home about. It was a poor village with few people. It was not the large and popular tourist destination that it is today. We don’t know what Mary was doing, but she is visited by Gabriel who tells her she is pregnant with the Son of God. Imagine her perplexity and confusion when she hears this announcement. She is a young woman. She is a virgin. She is betrothed to be married. And, she’s pregnant? How could this be? What would happen to her? Put yourself in her shoes. You could probably feel the fear Mary was feeling.

What does Gabriel say to her? He tells her to not be afraid. God is with her. God found favor with Mary, and showed her grace and peace. God will soon show that same grace and favor to then entire world through the birth of Jesus, who would save all of creation from their sin. Mary can feel peace because God is not going to abandon her. She would be protected. God will walk with her, and she will not be alone in this pregnancy. Mary will receive the greatest gift. She will be the first to hold the Baby Jesus in her arms and would always be known as the Mother of God.

Her response is one of the most beautiful responses to God’s grace and kindness in all of Scripture. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant.” She submits to God’s desires and accepts it as her own path of grace. She did not walk as God’s servant alone. Mary felt peace knowing God would be beside her in this new journey. As well, when she visits with her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, she offers a wonderful praise of adoration to God because of her love of God. Mary’s response to God’s grace and peace was to worship and praise God.

Both Mary and Joseph faced a difficult decision of how to respond to God’s call to be Jesus’ earthly parents. Neither blindly accepted this calling. They both wrestled with it. In their wrestling, God promised be with them. They would not do this alone. God’s grace and peace would walk with them.

Neither do we face difficult situations in our lives alone. God’s peace in the most distressing and disheartening of situations is here for all of us. God doesn’t call us to a life of fear and timidity, but of peace and living in the presence of God. When we go through difficult moments in our lives, we can have the confidence knowing God’s peace is with us. Even though some situations may seem overwhelming at times, God promises he will not abandon us. God’s peace and comfort is our assurance that God’s presence is with us.

I think this word gives us comfort. For many, Christmas is not a time of celebration, but a time of anxiety and sadness. We are reminded of those we have lost. Their presence is felt even more so during times of celebration. As well, there are many who visiting families is a time of frustration and sadness. The promise of God’s peace is that God is always with us, even when we are hurting and feel as though we cannot go on. We can be comforted knowing that even when we cannot face another time of celebration, God is right beside us. God is encouraging us, comforting us, and strengthening us in our times of loss and depression. We can have peace because the Emmanuel came, and is with us today.

As well, I think it is a word that gives us hope as a church and a charge. This year has been a time of transition and new beginnings for Mackville and Antioch. It’s also a time where we can look around and see the pews not as filled, and our loved ones not worshiping with us as we once liked. God’s promise is that his presence is here. God’s peace is with us, as a church and a charge, as we look forward to what it means for us to be a living and loving witness of Jesus Christ in Mackville, in Perryville, in Springfield, in Danville, in Harrodsburg, and all throughout our commonwealth, nation, and world.

God’s peace shows us the way to be fruitful and multiply as a congregation and as a people. This is something for all of us to think about what it means for us. In 2012, I am calling the church and charge to a time of visioning and looking forward. I want us to answer this question: What does it mean for us to be a representation of Christ in our community and our world? It will require us to look within the life of our church, and our own souls, to see what this might mean for us.

This is not a process of one, but a process for all of us. I want you to be in prayer and diligently think about this question. I want us to be in conversation with each other about this question and what it means for you. I want to hear your thoughts. I want to hear your struggles. I want to hear your soul. And, I want us to be in conversations with others who will guide us through this process. On Sunday, February 19, District Superintendent Jean Hawxhurst will be with us and will be talking with all of us about our vision as a church and a charge.

If we want to grow, and if we want to be alive, then we must look into the depths of our soul, as individuals, and as the church, to discern God’s call for us. We might be fearful and we might be intimidated, but just like Mary and Joseph we can be assured that God is with us. God will not abandon us. God’s peace will comfort us at all times.

Is Gambling an Acceptable Means of Economic Development?

Yesterday, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear began his second term in office as the commonwealth’s chief executive. It began with a push that was central to his first term: casino gambling.

Before a public inauguration ceremony, Beshear told members of the press he would propose a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling in the state. His argument is centered on economic development and protecting the state’s horse racing industry.

From an economic development perspective, Beshear argues casino gambling would bring tourism dollars to the commonwealth which would, in turn, create new jobs. He argues other states (such as West Virginia and Ohio) are benefiting from Kentucky not having casino gambling. Beshear says the horse racing industry would be protected, because of an increase in visitor to the state’s tracks.

With jobs hard to come by, Beshear makes a reasonable argument. But, is allowing casino gambling an acceptable means to the reach the ends of job creation? This is something many will be discussing in the days and weeks ahead.

Here is what the United Methodist Church has to say about the issue. The language comes from our Social Principles, which are statements the church holds regarding many social and economic issues. Regarding gambling, we believe:

Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.

We also believe:

The Church’s prophetic call is to promote standards of justice and advocacy that would make it unnecessary and undesirable to resort to commercial gambling – including public lotteries, casinos, raffles, Internet gambling, gambling with an emerging wireless technology and other games of chance – as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenues or funds for support of charities or government.

Such as is the case with the lottery, casino gambling takes advantage of the poor in order to benefit the desires of government. The poorest in our communities will often take their chances at the casino table in hopes of getting rich in order to move out of their financial situation. By promoting gambling, we are dangling a carrot of riches in the faces of the poor, while taking their money in the process. This is wrong.

At the same time, the increase in gambling in Kentucky will have other costs, such as dependency. How will the state respond to this and other costs, which will impact the already delicate state budget?

Real economic development will not come from a “get rich quick” scheme. Too many families are out of work for gimmick ideas that will, ultimately, add more costs and only hurt those the state claims it wants to help. Casino gambling is a bad idea and poor fiscal policy.

We need sound economic development and strong fiscal policies that will promote job growth in the commonwealth. My hope is that Republicans and Democrats will work together to come up with ways that will do just that.

Sunday’s Sermon: Incarnating the Emmanuel: Living With Joy

There are words that are synonymous with a season. This is true both in the church and in our world.

At Easter, we talk about resurrection and grace. The world talks about jelly beans and the Easter Bunny.

On New Year’s Day, you might hear the church speak about renewing our commitment to Christ. In the world, you’ll hear talk of bowl games and diets.

Christmas is no different. There are things that are central in our focus. We talk about the true reason for the season. The greatest gift we have received – the Son of God. We talk about what this birth means. At the same time, the world focuses on gifts, parties, decorations, and snow.

Now, this is not to start a sermon where we contrast these different views. We cannot control how the world views Christmas, but only how we respond to God’s love and how we are sharing that love with others.

Throughout this sermon series, we have focused on the key words and phrases the church uses during Advent. We’ve looked at hope and we’ve seen John the Baptist’s influence. Today, is no different. We are going to look at what it means to live with a contagious joy.

This is a word we see all throughout the Advent and Christmas season. Our Christmas cards feature this word. We have ornaments that are decorated with the word. We sing carols and hymns that focus on this word “joy,” such as “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”

Joy is a word we can drop quite easily without fully knowing what it means or how it relates to us as followers of Christ. I never want to assume that common words in the faith are common to you. So, indulge me again as we define this word.

With joy, we are thinking of an inner and outward expression of happiness. In its inner form, we joy is peace and happiness that reaches the depths of our soul. In its outer form, it is the expression of our own joy we share with others. This can be seen in several ways, such as a greeting to others, smiling, or simply sharing life with the people around you.

This time of year is filled with joy, or at least we hope it is. But, where does joy come from?

If we listen to the world, joy comes when we acquire new things. That’s why commercials, like the latest ones from Honda, are both annoying and a reflection of us. It’s annoying, because who can afford to buy someone a new car for Christmas. It is a reflection of us, because we believe we can only be happy if we have something new.

We have all acted as if joy only comes from material goods. We are like Ralphie from “The Christmas Story.” We’ve all seen this classic movie. TBS makes sure of it. The plot is that Ralphie wants an “official Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle,” but everyone tells him “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Eventually, his “old man” comes through for him on Christmas morning. Of course when he goes outside with the gun, he “shoots his eye out” when he hits an icicle.

We’ve all been like Ralphie. We get so excited about receiving something on our “wish list” that we believe we will only be happy if we get this gift. But, what happens when we receive the gift? Within a couple of days, it becomes just another item in the house. It loses its special quality. Soon, we will want something else just to get the rush we felt on Christmas morning.

In its purest form, joy does not come from receiving a gift. It comes from our relationship with God. Joy is a gift, a fruit of the spirit, that comes in the grace we receive from Christ. This pure form of joy has an inner and outer expression.

The inner expression is our confidence in God. We can be filled with joy because of God’s action in the world. Psalm 126 makes this clear. The Psalmist writes about being filled with joy because the Lord the people of Israel have returned to Jerusalem after the Exile. There was an overwhelming sense of happiness that God had shown his love in bringing the people of Israel home. Today, we can have joy because of God’s love for us. Joy is our response to the grace of God. We can have this inner sense of happiness and peace, because we worship the God who came to earth and will come again.

What would it look like to live with joy each day? We all know people who refuse to live with joy. They claim they are Christian, but you wouldn’t know it by how they live. They just mope. They complain. They bicker. They argue. Nothing is good enough. They are never pleasant to be around.

When we are filled with joy, something different is expressed. We are pleasant. People want to be around us. They want to come and be in relationship with us. Even more, if a church is filled with joy people are going to want to share life with us. This is how we should desire to live everyday.

But, we cannot hold onto this happiness for ourselves. God’s act of salvation is not a gift for us to hold on for ourselves. The joy we feel should be expressed as an outward sense of happiness. It means living life in a way that people know there is something different about us. Our inner sense of happiness allows us to live with joy.

In this Christmas season, there is a great way we can live with happiness and joy. We can do so by being content. In our passage from Philippians, Paul talks of how he had to learn how to be content with whatever he had. That’s not something we like to hear, is it? The message of the world is you should be looking out for the “next big thing.” If you have something old, the world says, then you are “behind the times.”

There is nothing wrong with Christians having nice things. Riches are not banned in Scripture. However, if we are constantly pursuing material goods we will never be filled with joy. We will be filled with greed that will cripple us in our faith and in our lives. When we are constantly chasing after the next big thing we tend to forget the big thing in our life, which is our faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul had to take a humble position to know his happiness did not come from things. Instead, it came from strength of the Lord who provided for Paul’s every need. This sense of contentment helps us in times of plenty to be humble and thankful for the things God has given us. It also helps us in times of need to know that God is there.

Is living with joy easy? What about times when we shouldn’t be “thrilled” with our situation. What does it mean to be content when there are injustices that occur throughout our world and our communities? What about when there are things in our homes that are problematic? What about when there are struggles that occur in the life of the church?

We don’t always believe God calls us to be content in these situations, because it is a challenge. Being content doesn’t mean we accept these situations and say, “There is nothing we can do about it,” or “Let’s just smile and pray things get better.” Instead, being content means we accept a basic truth. That is God is present in not only the best of situations, but also the worst of situations.

Psalm 23 says we should not fear the worst of times, because our God is with us. We are never alone. We can be filled with peace when we face these times. We can have joy knowing God doesn’t need us to fix things. We do not have to be Superman. Instead, God calls us to participate in what he is doing in our midst. This means we allow God to be at work and seek God’s will for our lives. We do not sit back, but we join with God in what is taking place. We can be filled with joy, because we are never alone and God is at work.

Joy can be something that defines us. The question for us is how do we want to live? How do we want to be defined?

That is not for me to answer for you. It is up to each of us, in prayer, to seek God and what it means for us to be filled with joy as a church, as a people, and as a community.

May that prayer begin today.

Sunday Sermon: Incarnating the Emmanuel: Showing the Way

I’ve got some exciting news for you today.

Got your attention, didn’t I?

Our ears get a little more attentive when we hear that someone has some good news to share. We get excited at the thought that something good is happening to someone and, even more, they want to share it with us.

We rejoice when someone finds a new job, especially if they have been out of work. We love hearing about soldiers returning home. We are interested when someone finds out something unique about their family’s history. We all get excited to hear about a couple getting engaged or married. We could go on and on.

These stories make us smile. We love these stories. When we have good news to share, we love to share it with our friends and families.

Why? Why do we love good news? Part of me believes it is a welcome diversion from the negative stories we often hear. But I believe there is a deeper reason. We love sharing life with others, and some of the best ways we can do that is by letting others in on the good news we have. When we share some good news with someone, regardless of what it might be, we are inviting someone to participate in our times of celebration and to share life with us.

It is important for us to share good news with others, so we may all participate in life together.

My friends, we have good news to share with others. It is more important than any good news that comes from sports. It is more important than any good news regarding a deal we might have found. It is even more important than anything in our personal lives.

For this good news is the reason we are all gathered here today. It is the message of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a message we should want to shout from the mountaintops and the rooftops. It is the message of God’s act of salvation for all of humanity and creation.

Good news gets to the heart of our passage today. In Mark 1:1, Mark, who is dictating a message about Jesus’ ministry from Peter, tells us that his words are about the “good news” of Jesus Christ. Other translations use the word “gospel” instead of “good news,” which is a more accurate translation. A gospel is a public announcement of some event that is good news to those who hear about it.

The idea of a “gospel” is taken from the Roman context of the First Century Christians. In those times, the gospel was good news regarding the activities of the Roman Empire. For instance, a gospel would be proclaimed following a major victory. As well, a gospel might have been for the birth of a child. According to Romans, Augustus’ birth was considered as “good news” for the world.

Early Christians knew this was not true good news. They said “true” good news, a true gospel, does not come from the exploits of the Roman Empire, or the exploits of any government, but instead from the action of God in the course of human events. The true gospel is the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, which is ongoing today.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simply this: It is the message of God’s action in creation by sending His Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, who lived among us, who taught us the way to a relationship with the Father, who died for the forgiveness of our sin, who was resurrected on the third day, who lives today at the right hand of the Father, and in whom we can have a relationship with the Father through the free gift of grace given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Without a doubt, this the true good news for the world. No other news, no other proclamation, can compete with the fact that God so loves the world that he gave us the greatest gift in His Son. Nothing comes close to this historic proclamation. Everything in Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, shows us that Jesus Christ is the true gospel.

But something is needed. The gospel needs a messenger. Good news is announced with someone helping in sharing the message with others. I can relate to this from my days as a journalist. Stories would not merely come to me on their own. They required one of two things: for me to work my sources for good information or for people to freely tell me of something going on. This prepared me to hear what they needed to say and to be able to share it with those who would read my articles.

For the gospel to be proclaimed, someone has to prepare the way for its hearing. This is the role of John the Baptist. He is the one who prepared the way for the people to hear and see the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark tells us John is the long-awaited prophet who would be the “messenger” who comes before Christ. His job was to prepare the people to receive faith in Jesus Christ. Luke tells us more about John. In his account, we learn that John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who was related to Mary. John was a cousin to Jesus, and perhaps the best person to be the long-awaited prophet who would be like Elijah.

That is an interesting phrase. It wasn’t just that there was a prophesy about someone preparing the way for the Lord’s message to be heard. It was also that this person would do so in a specific way. He would be like the prophet Elijah, who was one of the great prophets in the history of Israel. He battled the idolatry of the day with a style of preaching that anticipated the Lord’s coming. In Malachi, some of the last words of the Old Testament speak of the coming of an Elijah-type prophet who would come before the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ ministry and words confirm that John was the long-awaited prophet.

John didn’t just fulfill this role as the prophet who would speak like Elijah. He also looked the part. In verse 1:6, we see that he wore camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey, the very same things that defined Elijah, as we see in his accounts in 1 and 2 Kings.

So, how did John fulfill his calling? We see in Mark’s account that he did so in a specific way. He preached a specific message, which led to an announcement of the one to come. John’s message wasn’t fluff, as if to hold the people over until Christ came. His message was straight-forward and direct. John preached on the need for the people to repent of their sin, which was their disobedience to God’s will. John didn’t make them comfortable, but called them to a time of repentance and preparation. John’s words were to make the people aware that the only way to salvation was to repent and live for God.

John preached with a purpose and came to make an announcement. Perhaps like those who would herald the Roman gospel, John boldly proclaimed that the time of Christ was upon them. The Messiah, the Son of God, would follow. By his words and actions, John prepared the people to receive Jesus. Some accepted and some did not. Yet, John faithfully prepared the people for Jesus to come, and helped them to see the only way to God was not by their own understanding of faith, but by faith in Christ.

John is a hero of the faith. His actions are not only for that specific time. In fact, they help us today in understanding what it means to follow Christ and to live as people who living Christ-like lives in anticipation of Christ’s return. By our witness, we are to participate in what God is doing in the lives of others, especially those who are outside the faith. We want to prepare them to see and experience the depths of God’s love for them, so that they might accept the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. This is not a role for some of us, but a role for all of us. Each of us are called to pave the way, so that someone might believe in Jesus.

Yes, it is challenging. But it is easier than what we might realize.

We prepare others to receive Christ by living our lives each day for Christ, and sharing the good news with others by our words, our actions, and our presence. This doesn’t mean that at every opportunity we are giving our “testimony.” Instead, it means we are living life with people so that Christ might shine from the depths of our soul and impact others. Simply by living our lives for Christ, we will have the opportunity to be a presence to others in ways that say Christ is the only way to a relationship with the Father.

It is an important task of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is hard work. Preparing the way for someone to see Christ is not something that happens overnight. George Hunter, who was one of my favorite professors at Asbury, said it sometimes takes up to 12 separate interactions for someone to come to know Christ. This doesn’t mean 12 separate testimonies given to an individual. Instead, what Hunter meant was that it sometimes takes 12 different people, at various times in an individual’s life, to share life with them and to model the good news of Jesus Christ. These interactions help someone see the depths of Christ’s love for them so they might come to see Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Think of  all the possibilities we have to engage the people around us and model Christ’s love. When we collect canned goods for Harvesting Hope, we are modeling the life of Christ to others. When you are patient with someone who is just getting on your nerves, you are sharing Christ’s love. When you have the opportunity to invite someone to church, or to share a meal with you, you are impacting their lives for Christ. People will take notice that there is something different about you. They may come up to you and ask you why you do the things you do. When that happens, those are the golden opportunities that give you the permission to share your life, to share the good news, so that they may hear the good news that Christ loves them and died for them so that they might be free.

These possibilities are all around us. On Friday, I had to go at the Apple store in Lexington. It was a busy time made even busier by an unfortunate incident that occurred at the store. I had the opportunity to show patience and to say a few words of kindness to the store associate who was helping me. Now, I don’t know her life and I certainly don’t know her faith, but I know that I showed her Christ. By being a living witness of Jesus Christ every day of my life, I showed her something unique about God’s love for me and for her. Only God knows what impact it had on her. You never know how your words and your actions will impact others to come to know Christ. Take seriously how you live your life, so that others will see Christ in you.

We all have the opportunity to participate in what God is doing in the lives of someone. But we cannot participate in that life if we are not willing to be in relationship with God ourselves. Advent should be our time of growth in our relationship with God, so that we might impact others and prepare the way for them to receive Christ, whether it be that day or at some point in the future. If you are struggling with this today, I invite you to find time, in a few moments, to give that over to God. Allow God to reach into your soul and transform you, so that you might live in relationship with God so that it impacts your life and the lives of those around you.

On this day, let us commit ourselves to being a living presence of Christ’s love in our communities. Let us be a witness by our words and our actions, so that others will know that Christ is the only way to the Father. Let us never forget that this life matters, and so also do our words and our actions, which can prepare the way for others to see Christ and his love for them.