Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bible Challenge 01/01 - 01/07

Greetings All!

Happy New Year! You know what this means? It means a new year to spend reading and being transformed by God's Word. It means a new year to participate in our Bible Challenge together.

For those of you unfamiliar with our Bible Challenge, basically what the Bible Challenge is, is a reading plan. A reading plan that when followed will take you through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice, in one calendar year. We read almost everyday and we read four chapters a day.

I hope that if you participated last year, you are back for more. I also hope, that if last year just did not quite work out for you, you are back to try again. And I also hope, that if you did not know about it last year, you are here to get involved in 2012.

Please do not let this exercise be filled with pressure for you. I simply encourage you to do what you can, as you can. Any time you can spend reading through the Bible with us, is time God can and will use to reach out to you. Come and join us, have fun with it, and I know you will not only learn something new, but you will also grow deeper in your walk with Christ.

This week we will start with the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is the first of the Gospels recorded in the New Testament and is also one of the three "synoptic Gospels" (meaning similar or together because they include some of the same stories in the same sequences and the same words - John is the exception). This Gospel is attributed to one of Jesus' disciples, Matthew the tax collector. And from the information and perspective he includes we can tell that he was writing to a primarily Jewish audience: he stresses Jewish law, he doesn't explain Jewish customs, and in the beginning of the Gospel he includes a genealogy which takes Jesus' ancestry all the way back to Father Abraham. There are seven main sections in this Gospel, with a prologue about Jesus' early life, five sections covering his ministry and the last section about his death and resurrection.

In light of us just passing through Advent, I hope what we talked about in worship will give a new light to this reading for you.

Here is the schedule:

1, Sunday: Matthew 1-4

2, Monday: Matthew 5-8

3, Tuesday: Matthew 9-12

4, Wednesday: Matthew 13-16

5, Thursday: Matthew 17-20

6, Friday: Matthew 21-24

7, Saturday: Matthew 25-28

May God add His richest blessings to the reading, the hearing, and the living out of His Holy Word. Amen.

See you soon,

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mary's Christmas: The Gift – Luke 2:1-20

Tonight is the night. The night that we have been preparing for this entire Advent season. Tonight is the night that we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That tiny baby, born in the most humble of ways, to come a save all of humanity. The last several weeks we have been watching this story unfold, but not from a traditional perspective, where we know everything that is happening as it unfolds. Rather, we have been looking at this story through only one set of eyes, the eyes of Mary. Tonight we will continue that practice as we experience the birth of the Christ Child and what that birth means for us today.

What a Trip!
Thus far we have watched Mary take an incredible journey. A journey not of her choosing. A journey full of doubt and questions. A journey that was anything but easy and peaceful. But a journey that she took none the less, and a journey that transformed her for the rest of her life. A journey that if we look closely can transform us as well. A journey that went something like this...

This all started back in Nazareth, as Mary was drawing water. She was visited by an angel named Gabriel who told her that she had found favor with God, would become pregnant and give birth to a son, that she was to name him Jesus, and that he would be the Messiah for which his kingdom would know no end. After a simple question of biology, she told the angel, let it be with me as you have said.

Next, came several very long, very arduous trips between Nazareth, Ein Karem, and Bethlehem. Trips where Mary more than likely asked many questions, dealt with many doubts, and experienced a wide range of emotions. In fact her last trip, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, was taken when she was almost full term. And last week we stopped this story with her arriving in Bethlehem, to a sea of humanity, and no room for them in which to stay. This resulted in Mary giving birth to her baby in a stable and placing him in a stone manger, more than likely one that had been used as a feeding trough for other animals. Not exactly what you might ultimately design for the Messiah. But it happened this way. End of story right? Baby born, angelic decree fulfilled.

The Shepherds
But the story is not over. Next come the shepherds. Now it is important that we all understand something about these shepherds. Shepherds in that day and age were not highly regarded. In fact, there was not a job lower in society, except if you were a shepherd on the night watch. Then you were considered the lowest of the low. You see, shepherds were looked down upon because they were poor, because their work made them ceremonially unclean, and in come circles they had a reputation as being thieves. So you can see why nobody wanted to be around a shepherd, much less be a shepherd.

That is why I find it so interesting the God chose to reveal the birth of his son, to the shepherds first. To that societies outcast, and to the night shepherds at that. But, these men are out in the fields, protecting these animals from the weather and any lurking predators, when an angel appeared, “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. 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 2:10-13, NIV).

Can you imagine? Scripture tells us that after that encounter the shepherds set off for Bethlehem so they could see this all for themselves, and sure enough they find it exactly as it was told to them. Mother, Father, and baby, all together. I imagine Mary and Joseph are kind of surprised to see these strange men in the stable wanting to get a look at the baby. But when they explain all they have seen and why they are there, Scripture tells us, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NIV). I have to think these was but one more reassurance for Mary that this baby was indeed the Messiah. That everything God had told to Mary, through angels and family, has come true. The fact that Scripture tells us she treasured them in her heart, helps me to understand it this way.

Jesus could have been born to royalty. Jesus could have come with trumpet blasts and choirs of angels at his side. But instead Jesus came into this world the same way you and I did, as a baby. And he was born to a servant girl, had his birth announced by night shepherds, and was born in a stone manger. All of this tells me that God does indeed bless the meek and the mild. That God does see invaluable good in all people. He could have used the wealthy and powerful to birth and raise his Son. But God chose Mary. Because she was humble, because she was faithful, and because she had value. Regardless of who you are, where you have come from, what acts you have committed in life, Jesus came for you, specifically for you.

If you hear nothing else tonight, if you remember nothing else from this season, please remember this, God loves you. This gift of a babe, this revelation of God Incarnate, of the Word made flesh, is so that we might better understand the love of God. There is a reason that God picked a humble servant girl as Jesus' mother. There is a reason why God had the shepherds be the first to evangelists of this great birth.

This year, and in the days to come, I encourage you to celebrate this birth with a great deal of humility. There is power in humility, power in putting others above yourself, power in a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ that comes out of humility. Therefore, humbly open yourselves up to the transforming power of God, be not afraid of where it takes you, and then expect God to use you and work through you. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and a life full of humility.

Bible Challenge 12/25 - 12/31

Greetings All!

Are you ready? This is the week....the week we finish reading through the ENTIRE Bible (plus the New Testament one more time!). Give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far - it's an incredible accomplishment that not every believer has reached.

We're only reading five days this week and switching between three and four chapters a day on the days we do read. It's all about Revelation this week. I have to confess that as a child I really didn't like this book. It is full of imagery that can be terrifying if left unexplored. It wasn't until we were in Hudson that Debbie and I decided to revisit this book and we spent three months walking folks, her in a Bible Study, me in Sunday School, through the book. And what we found this time was HOPE. Over and over again the people are given an opportunity to respond to God and draw closer to Him. Plus this is the book that tells us "The Rest of the Story" (as Paul Harvey used to say) and lets us know that good ultimately triumphs over evil. I hope you will read this book with hopeful eyes.

Here is the schedule:

25, Sunday: No Reading - Merry Christmas!

26, Monday: Revelation 5-7

27, Tuesday: Revelation 8-10

28, Wednesday: Revelation 11-14

29, Thursday: Revelation 15-18

30, Friday: Revelation 19-21

31, Saturday: No Reading - Happy New Year!

May God add His richest blessings to the reading, the hearing and the living out of His Holy Word. Amen.

Have a great week!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Fives

Have you ever been so moved by a song that it brings up emotions within you every time you hear it? For me this Advent, it has been a song by Amy Grant, Breath of Heaven. This week I want to use this space to share that song with you because the lyrics, the mental images it conjures up, have been very powerful for me.

I found this video that places the song over images from the movie, The Nativity. I encourage you to focus on the lyrics and allow the Spirit to speak to you and I pray you will be moved as I have been moved.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Midweek Moment

During worship it is not uncommon for you to hear me ask God to help us be the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus Christ to those that we meet. I am trying to stress the idea that while we cannot physically, nor tangibly, touch God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, we can touch each other. We can hold each other's hand, give each other hugs, and audibly affirm each other. And it is in that moment, that Christ is flowing through us, using us, to care for each other. We are representing Christ to the people we are ministering to at that moment. We are being the physical hands, feet, and heart of Jesus Christ.

I am part of a covenant group. There are two other guys in this group with me, all pastors in the United Methodist Church, and we have covenanted to pray for each other, support each other, and be there for each other. Today one of these men were the heart of Jesus Christ for me. You see, this friend of mine, this brother of mine, was driving from his church to another appointment and felt the push to call me. He shared with me he was not sure why, but he listened, and made the call. His first question was not, “how are you?” It was, “what is going on?” After a bit of hesitation and confusion on my part, after all how could he possibly know I needed anything, I began to share. I believe his next statement will live with me forever. He said, “now I know why I was in staff meeting last week.”

He had been in staff meeting last week, listening to a training, that at that moment, seemed like a waste of time for him. The topic had nothing to do with him, was not going to have anything to do with him in the near future, but he listened. We both realized that his training was for me. The lessons he learned there were what I needed to hear today. God used him, and that training, to minister to me. What he shared with me, made so much sense, and cleared up so much confusion and internal struggle for me. It was like a literal parting of the clouds within my soul.

Folks, that is God. In all of his infinite wisdom, and grace, and love, that is God. God using each of us to be his love to one another. I am so grateful to my friend that listened to the Holy Spirit today. I am also so grateful for each of you as you listen to the Holy Spirit. I have seen it, been privileged enough to witness it, and have been blessed by it. As you continue your Advent preparations, I encourage you to be open to God, listen to the Spirit, and go when called to be the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus Christ.

Saint Teresa of Avila once said, "Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now."

To be called by God, to go in his name is a wonderful responsibility, and one that will bless you as you bless others. So, go with courage, go by faith, and go with God!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary's Christmas: The Journey – Isaiah 43:2-3a and Luke 2:1-7

Today we continue our Advent series, Mary's Christmas. This story, the birth of Christ, is so well known. Therefore, we are going to spend our time this year looking at this story from the point of view of Mary, this very young girl that was placed in a very strange situation. Two weeks ago, we began with Mary, by looking at who she was, the situation she faced, and the lessons of faith we can learn from her. Today we are going to look at the journey her and Joseph took just before the birth of Jesus. That journey that took them from Nazareth to Bethlehem and what they endured during those days and the encouragement, perseverance, and hope we can glean from their experience.

I Don't Wanna!
Debbie and I are part of what is referred to as a clergy couple; meaning both members of the marriage are clergy, or pastors. There are a good number of us in the Florida Conference, high twenties, low thirties. However, in this district there are three of us fairly close together. Being a clergy couple comes with its own set of situations and concessions and to have others that can understand that, that live that, is a blessing. Well shortly after Debbie and I arrived in Ocala we got with the other clergy couples and proposed that we get together periodically to have dinner and form a little group together. So about once a month, usually on a Friday, we rotate serving dinner for the entire group at each of our houses.

Several months ago, one of those days was approaching. I had had a rather difficult week, was exhausted, and the last thing I wanted to do was go hang out at someone elses house. I just wanted to veg on my couch and relax. But I went, begrudgingly. As the evening progressed I could feel myself relaxing. We ended the evening, sitting out on their patio around the fire they had made in their fire pit, making smores. I do not know about you, but I love watching a fire. The colors, the embers, it is very relaxing for me. Imagine, me needing to relax, and by going where I did not want to go, found a relaxing moment better than any one I could have created at home on my own.

Life is a Journey
By going on that short journey to another person's house, I found exactly what I was looking for, exactly what I needed. You see our entire lives are a journey. Journeys of self discovery, of reflection, of growth. We are always progressing towards something. Sometimes these journeys are planned, sometimes they are not, sometimes they are welcomed, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes others dictate our journeys, as we get laid off from work, a child dies tragically, a spouse leaves. Someone once said that, “No other book is more in tune with this reality than the Bible. You could almost describe it as one long set of journeys nobody wanted to take.”1

In our Scripture lesson from this morning we find Mary and Joseph on a journey of their own, to Bethlehem. At this point many things have happened to Mary. Remember, Mary is thought to be about 13, 14, or 15 years old and up till the Annunciation, where the angel told her that she would give birth to a son, and she was to name him Jesus, and that he would be the Messiah, she more than likely lived a fairly sheltered life. Doing the chores required of her, living in innocence, not too many worries to weight her down. But now, my how things have changed. As we talk about those changes this morning, I want us to pay attention to what Mary might have been feeling, the questions she might have been asking, and the emotions she might have been dealing with.

Mary's Journey
After the angel's visit, Mary immediately leaves for her cousin Elizabeth's house in Ein Karem, a nine day journey. Mary would not have taken this journey alone, but rather as part of a group of people, not necessarily relatives or friends, but a group none the less.

During these nine days, Mary would have had plenty of time to think, plenty of time to examine the message from the angel. Now with no video evidence, no cell phone camera recording, Mary would have to rely on her memory about the event. And those questions of, did I really hear that correctly, is this really going to happen, could begin to creep up. Remember, this immaculate conception had never happened before, she is not showing any physical sings of being pregnant, and there are no witnesses to this encounter. Not to mention that if all of this is true, her life is going to get very hard, very quick. Can you see how she might be having these thoughts?

You see, if she is pregnant, she could be stoned to death, her parents could shun her, Joseph could break off the engagement, she could be left alone to care for a child. I can only imagine the doubt, the fear, the second guessing that is running through this young girl's mind.

Then she arrives at Elizabeth's house and after seeing Elizabeth is with child, she sings the Magnificat and praises God for her blessings and the favor she has found with her Lord. But things are not suddenly all rosy for Mary. In Nazareth, Mary's hometown, she is a nine day trek from her fiance. In Ein Karem she is 45 minutes. She has more than likely never met Joseph, she certainly has not emailed him to tell him of her condition. But now, there is a very real possibility that in the three months she is staying with Elizabeth, her and Joseph would meet. How is she going to tell him, how is he going to react. Fortunately, Joseph is also visited by an angel and given confirmation of what Mary will tell him. But it still is not over. Now Mary has to go back to Nazareth, more than likely to tell her parents, but to also plan a wedding. On her nine day journey back home, more time for thinking, more time for fear to set in, and on this trip she is definitely dealing the physical complications of being pregnant.

Now once home a hasty wedding is planned. Mary is showing and there is some urgency to have Mary married prior to giving birth and with Mary spending the last three months in Ein Karem, time is running out. Now if any of you have been to a wedding that just seems to come out of nowhere, our first question is, “why?” Why are they rushing it? So I want you to imagine all of the looks, questions, false happiness that Mary might have had to deal with at her wedding. A day that I am sure she imagined much differently before all of this happened.

Now Mary gets a break right? The wedding is over, the people have gone home, and all she has to do is give birth and since she is in her home town, with her family, mid-wife of her choosing, things will be okay. Right? Wrong! Caesar Augustus decided that he wanted a census of all the people in his land and ordered everyone to their hometown to be counted. But Mary is home, so no worries. Except that she is now married to Joseph, is part of his family, and must be counted in Bethlehem. Another nine day journey, her third.

This time though, she is really, really pregnant, close to full term, if not full term. This trip, this route, would encompass little shade in the day, little warmth at night and difficult mountains to cover. Can you imagine the thoughts that are going though Mary's head this time? Why? Why do we have to be counted? Why do we have to be counted now? Could this not wait? Could you not have postponed this and let me have the baby? Why am having to make this trip for the third time? Not to mention the worry that both Mary and Joseph are both facing about whether or not they even make it to Bethlehem before the baby is born. But they do make it. But this is not over.

As they come into town, they see a sea of humanity because everyone else is back as well. Now we read in Scripture that there was no room for them in the inn. What we need to understand is that Joseph was more than likely not looking for what we consider an inn; a building with many rooms and an inn keeper. Joseph was probably seeking out a kataluma, or guest room. Most homes had them, his parents home probably had them. But for whatever reason, they were all full. That left the stable as the only place they could go for shelter.

This time of year we love to sing songs like O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Or Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. While those qualities may have been found eventually, for mother and child, it is important for us to know they were not always there.

But in all of these situations, in all of these journeys, there was always one constant, God. God was always present, guiding them, listening to them, directing them, and taking care of them. In those times of doubt he was there. In those times of darkness he was there. This Advent season please understand that God always walks with are never alone.

If you want to feel his presence a great place to start is right here, come to this rail and seek it out. If you have lost that feeling and want to feel it again, do not leave today before coming to this rail and asking for it. Mary experienced anything but a silent night as she prepared to give birth. And even though she may have had doubts, even though she may have asked questions, she still followed God. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Is. 43:2-3a, NIV). For these are the words of God, they are true, and they can be trusted.

1. Hamilton, Adam. The Journey. Companion DVD

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bible Challenge 12/18 - 12/24

Greetings All!

We are getting closer! This week with Christmas Eve, there are only six days of reading this week. So, by the end of the week we'll be through six more books and into the last book of Revelation.

Here is some more background information about what we will read this week.

I and II Peter - Attributed by their titles to the Apostle Peter, these are some of the latest writings to be included in the New Testament. The first letter is the only one scholars really attribute to Peter; probably written while Peter was the bishop of the church in Rome. This letter addressed to believers dispersed through five different provinces in Asia Minor (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia) is a word of encouragement to those undergoing religious persecution.

The second letter is most likely not authored by Peter because it quotes a later letter extensively (Jude). The main purpose of this letter is to identify Jesus with God and to correct a growing heresy since Jesus had not yet returned.

I John, II John and III John - These letters are attributed to the disciple John who also wrote the Gospel of John and Revelation. The first two letters were probably written in Ephesus between 95-110 AD to counter the heresies that Jesus did not come in the flesh but only as a spirit. The first letter is a general one and lifts up how Christians are to discern true teachers: by their ethics, their proclamation of Jesus and by their love. The second letter is a private one written to "an elect lady" and much speculation exists as to who this person is. The final letter is another private one addressed to Gaius to commend a party of Christians who had gone on a mission to preach the Gospel, to encourage him and to warn him of a group of other believers who are not cooperating.

Jude - This book is often attributed to one of Jesus' brothers. This 25 verse letter was composed as an encyclical letter - not directed at any one church but rather intended to be circulated and read in all churches.

Addressed to Christians in general it warns about the doctrine of certain errant teachers. Many examples of evildoers and warnings about their fates are given in some of the most strongly worded language in the New Testament. The letter concludes with a doxology (short hymn of praise) one of the highest in quality found in the Bible.

Revelation - This book is also attributed to John the disciple and probably written during John's exile at Patmos. This book is a piece of apocalyptic literature, a genre that relies heavily on visions and symbolism (like Daniel in the Old Testament).

Now...on to the schedule:

18, Sunday: James 2-5

19, Monday: I Peter 1-4

20, Tuesday: I Peter 5 - II Peter 3

21, Wednesday: I John 1-4

22, Thursday: I John 5; II John; III John; Jude

23, Friday: Revelation 1-4

24, Saturday: Christmas Eve, A favorite reading of your choice

May God add His richest blessings to the reading, the hearing and the living out of His holy word. Amen.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Fives

1. Preaching Series – This week will continue our Advent preaching series looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of Mary. Two weeks ago we looked at Mary and the wonderful example of faith she provided in the midst of a very unique time. This week we will focus on the journey she took with Joseph, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, just prior to Jesus' birth and the encouragement, perseverance, and hope that we can glean from their experience. Bring a friend and I look forward to seeing you there!

2. Bible Study - This next week we will conclude our Bible Study series entitled, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. I invite you to come join us, on this DVD study, as we finish our journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Once again, we will join Adam Hamilton on his travels through these locations to rediscover the birth of Christ. We are looking at historical information, archaeological data, as well as some of the personal stories surrounding the birth. I am sure the most amazing moment in history will become more real and heart-felt as you join us and we walk along this road together.

The class will meet this Thursday December 22nd, at two different times: 10:00am and 7:00pm, in the Fellowship Hall. The cost is free and it is never too late to join. I know you will be changed by this series and I would love to see you there!

3. Christmas Services - This year, Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday. Therefore, after much discussion, internally and with other churches, the Worship Committee has decided to combine our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services into one service to be held, Saturday, December 24 at 6 pm. We look forward to seeing all of you at the Saturday evening service and pray you will be moved by its music and its message.

4. Donation Request - We received the following request from the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center. If you have any of these items and would like to donate them to this cause, please drop them by the church office and we will make sure they get delivered.

Hello folks!

We have always depended on our Client Welfare money to support our behavior management and other activities with youth. That fund is now almost dry. Therefore, we are seeking donations of:
  • Any Christmas decorations you may be throwing away or getting rid of this year…we can store them till next year.
  • Any scrapbooking supplies, paper, glitter, etc. that you might be getting rid of.
  • Donations of games, journals, poster board, writing paper, envelopes, etc.
  • Donations of basketballs

Thank you all for your consideration!

5. Christmas Drive-Thru - Belleview UMC is hosting their annual Christmas gift to the community; their Christmas Drive-Thru.  It is a Live Nativity of six scenes that you can drive through. It will run from December 15-17 (Thurs-Sat) from 7-9pm each night. I encourage you to invite your friends, family and neighbors and go on out and experience the Nativity.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Midweek Moment

This past weekend I was given a very special honor. Some of you may remember a few months back how I was surprised by my two best friends when they showed up for worship with us. I had no idea they were coming or even entertaining the idea of coming to Druid Hills; much less both at the same time. These two men are very special to me. You see we all met in the sixth grade at Lopez Elementary in Seffner, Florida. We had each joined the orchestra and there began our friendship, Mike and Jonathan playing the violin and I playing the double bass. We became fast friends and through high school we did everything together. We not only played in the orchestra together, we ran track together, we ran cross country together, we even went on triple dates together (maybe that is why none of us married our high school sweethearts!). We spent time hanging out at each others houses and our parents even worked together raising this motley crew. We each had multiple mothers and fathers, and several adopted siblings. We were affectionately dubbed “The Three Amigos”. We were inseparable!

But then time happened. Jonathan moved away first, to Sarasota. Mike and I visited once, trying to stay in touch. Then Mike was next, enlisting in the Army and very quickly being stationed to Germany. Time happened. Life happened. We lost touch. We lost each other.

However, about a year ago, we reconnected. Unfortunately, it was the death of Mike's dad that allowed Mike and I to reconnect with each other. Shortly thereafter, we both found Jonathan on Facebook, in Jacksonville of all places. We began emailing, texting, and calling each other. However, every time we planned to get together, life would happen again and the plans would fall through. Until that Sunday. Until Jonathan and Mike got together, committed to meet each other in Ocala, halfway between Jacksonville and Seffner, and reunite “The Three Amigos”. We went to Five Guys for lunch that day, and it was like we were back in high school all over again. We began to tell the same jokes, our conversations were easy and flowing, the memories came flooding back with uncanny vividness. It was awesome!

Well this past weekend I was given a special honor. I was asked to perform the marriage of Jonathan to his fiance, Tanya. Together again, Daryl the pastor, Jonathan the groom, and Mike the best man. To be able to reconnect with these two dear friends, for all of us to take part in a very important event in the life of Jonathan, and for all of us to be able to spend that dedicated time together, there are no words to describe how wonderful, uplifting, and necessary it was...for all of us.

This weekend got me thinking about our relationship with Jesus Christ. How often do we find Jesus, latch on to the transformation that happens the first time we fall in love with him, but then get sidetracked when life happens? We fall away, often times unintentionally, but we still fall away. Then months, years, decades, pass and nothing. No contact, no conversations, no nothing. But the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:35, 37-39, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The love of God through Jesus Christ is eternal. So this Advent season, I encourage all of us to renew our relationship with Jesus. As we prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ, let us all remember that the relationship we have with Jesus, is forever. Just because life may take us away, Jesus is always waiting. Do not let “life” take you away anymore. Find Jesus, turn back to Jesus, and those conversations will flow again, that power of his love will encompass you again. It will be like he was always there...because he was.

Have a GREAT week and I will see you Sunday!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bible Challenge 12/11 - 12/17

Greetings All!

We're making a lot of progress again at the end of the New Testament. This week we finish up the last chapter of II Thessalonians and progress through some of Paul's other letters addressed not to churches but to people: I and II Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Then we move on to another large book often attributed to Paul - the book of Hebrews. Finally, we will begin our journey through James.

I and II Timothy - Paul found Timothy during one of his visits to Lystra where Timothy is mentioned as a disciple. From the Scriptures it seems his mother and grandmother were Jews who had become believers; the only thing mentioned about his father was that he was Greek. Timothy becomes Paul's traveling companion going to Phyrgia, Galatia, Mysia, Troad, Philippi, Veria and Corinth. Eventually around 65AD, Paul installs Timothy as the bishop of the church at Ephesus, a post he would hold for at least the next fifteen years. Timothy was eventually stoned to death when he took a stand against a pagan procession of idols, ceremonies and songs. The first letter from Paul to Timothy seems to deal mainly with forms of worship, organization of the church, the responsibilities of the bishops and deacons, and keeping faithful amid surrounding errors. The second letter seems to be more of a personal goodbye as Paul is nearing the end of his life.

Titus - Titus is mentioned in Galatians as one of Paul's traveling companions to Jerusalem. He was then dispatched to Corinth and later went to Crete as the bishop there. This letter mainly deals with the requirements for bishops and elders in the church.

Philemon - Philemon was a wealthy Christian and leader (possibly bishop) of the church in Colosse. This is the shortest of all Paul's letters and deals mainly with the topic of forgiveness.

Hebrews - The author of this letter is not known or identified although many associate it with Paul or suppose it to be written in his style by one of his followers. The book provides a unique look at Jesus as both exalted Son of God and high priest of the people. Most believe the title to be a reference to its original audience: Jewish Christians of the second century who are apparently being tempted to avoid severe persecution by "shrinking back" in their faith. It is a letter written with hope and perseverance in mind.

James- Most believe the author of this letter to be James the brother of Jesus. Many people wrestle with this letter because it appears to contradict Paul's stance on justification by faith alone. James emphasizes works, but not in the sense of justifying oneself before God; rather in the sense that works are evidence of a person's inward faith.

Here is the schedule:

11, Sunday: II Thessalonians 3 - I Timothy 3

12, Monday: I Timothy 4 - II Timothy 1

13, Tuesday: II Timothy 2 - Titus 2

14, Wednesday: Titus 3 - Philemon - Hebrews 2

15, Thursday: Hebrews 3-6

16, Friday: Hebrews 7-10

17, Saturday: Hebrews 11 - James 1

May God add His richest blessings to the reading, the hearing and the living out of His holy word. Amen.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Fives

1. Preaching Series – This week will celebrate Advent through song as our choir presents the Advent Cantata, Beautiful Star. I encourage to come and be moved by the songs and transformed by the music. Bring a friend and come and join us for this very special event.

2. Bible Study - We are in the midst of our Bible Study series entitled, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. I invite you to come join us, on this DVD study, as we journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Each week we join Adam Hamilton on his travels through these locations to rediscover the birth of Christ. We are looking at historical information, archaeological data, as well as some of the personal stories surrounding the birth. I am sure the most amazing moment in history will become more real and heart-felt as you join us and we walk along this road together.

The class meets each Thursday through December 22nd, at two different times: 10:00am and 7:00pm, in the Fellowship Hall.  However, on the 15th, we will meet in the sanctuary due to the new floor being installed in Fellowship Hall.  The cost is free. If you would like the book, which is not required, it is $12.  It is never too late to join and I know you will be changed by this series and I would love to see you there!

3. Christmas Gift Cards - If you normally buy gift cards for the holidays I want to invite you to consider buying them through the church this year. This is an excellent way for you to buy those cards for your loved ones and allows the church to raise extra funds, all at the same time. In order to guarantee delivery by the 25th, your order must be in by noon, on 12/12. For a full listing of all participating vendors you can contact Carole in the church office.

4. Christmas Services - This year, Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday. Therefore, after much discussion, internally and with other churches, the Worship Committee has decided to combine our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services into one service to be held, Saturday, December 24 at 6 pm. We look forward to seeing all of you at the Saturday evening service and pray you will be moved by its music and its message.

5. January Newsletter - If you have an article that you would like to include in the January edition, those articles are due Sunday, 12/11.

Have a great weekend and I will see you soon!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Midweek Moment

This evening as I was driving home I heard this song, One Last Christmas, by Matthew West.  My mind was racing about so many other things that I was hardly paying attention to it.  However, when the song was over, the DJ mentioned that it was based on a true story.  That got my attention and when I got home I looked it up on the internet to see what it was about......and I was blown away.

Here is the song and the story....

The love this community showed Dax was truly what it meant when Christ told us to love our neighbor.  May each of us show that same love to all we meet, may each of us receive that same love from all we encounter.

God bless you all!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mary's Christmas: The Annunciation – Luke 1:26-33 and 34-38

Today we begin our Advent series, Mary's Christmas. It goes without saying that this time of year is special. This time of year contains so much magic and excitement, not only within the religious tradition, but overflowing into the secular as well. This year I want us to spend our time looking at this story from the point of view of Mary, this very young girl that was placed in a very strange situation. My hope is that as we do this we will add a layer of magic back to this time of year and develop new understandings as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child. Today, we are going to begin with Mary, by looking at who she was, the situation she faced, and the lessons of faith we can learn from this her.

Who Are You?
I want you each to take a moment and think back to your childhood home. Think back to the place where you were born. Are you there? Can you see it? I want you to capture as much of that place in your mind's eye as you can. I want you to remember rooms of your home, your favorite hang out, the familiar smells, and the feelings you had growing up there.

For some of you, this may be one place. For others of you, it may be several places. And yet for others, you may not want to remember your childhood home at all. You see the reasons we have these feelings, the reasons our feelings range the spectrum, is because we are shaped by those places, good and bad, dangerous and safe.

For me, my childhood home is a singular place. I have been told I am somewhat of an anomoly. You see, I was born in Florida and from what I am told there are not too many of us around any more. I was born in Tampa, raised in Tampa, and my family still lives there. When I was five my parents and I moved to a little town on the outskirts of Tampa, called Seffner and the home we moved into is still the home that my Mom and Dad live in today.

When we moved to Seffner, my younger brother was not around yet, ahh...the good 'ol days. The main intersection in town was a tiny two lane road with the four corners containing cow pasture, cow pasture, orange grove, and cow pasture. Fast forward to today those same four corners, sit on a four lane highway and it is 7-Eleven, Winn Dixie, Taco Bell, and McDonald's.

But back then I rode my bike everywhere, and Mom and Dad did not have to worry. Everyone knew each other, we looked out for each other, and we lived our lives together. It was not uncommon for neighbors to talk across fences, to catch up with friends as you drank a soda outside the hardware store, and the reality was that you hardly ever saw a strangers face. You cannot do those things in Seffner anymore.

We often acknowledge that we are shaped by the people we grow up around. But we also are shaped by the places in which we have lived and grown up. Even in the United States, different parts of our country have different practices and customs, different values and beliefs, even different words for the same items.
When my wife Debbie and l traveled overseas in 2009, I began to realize how much Jesus’ humanity was shaped by the places in which he lived; Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Egypt where he spent time as a child in exile, Nazareth where he grew to adulthood, Jerusalem where he made his temple pilgrimages as a faithful Jew and where he was later crucified. Being in those places helped me to see and understand Jesus in a whole new way. This year as we look to these events from one point of view, through Mary's eyes, I pray we all see Jesus in a new light, are transformed in a new way, and the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season is renewed within us all.

Who is Mary?
So let us begin our Advent journey by looking at Mary. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the story begins as an angel visits this young woman named Mary in the town of Nazareth to give her an amazing message. She is told she will be with child and will give birth to a son she is to call Jesus. That child will be the long-awaited Savior and Messiah.

You have to know a little something about the geography of this area to understand why it is so surprising that God would choose Nazareth. Nazareth then was just a poor tiny village of a few hundred people, located a few miles southeast of a bustling city called Sepphoris. People had settled in Nazareth because of the water source, a fresh spring. Debbie and I visited that spring on our trip, although it looks quite different now with the Greek Orthodox Church of the Anunciation built over top of it. But the people of Nazareth most likely worked and shopped in Sepphoris. In fact, at this point in time, Sepphoris was thought to be a large wealthy city with strong Roman and Greek influences to its culture and that the people of Nazareth, these few hundred people, made up the servant class that served the people of Sepphoris. So is it any wonder that in John 1:46, Nathaniel makes the comment, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (NIV). After all the people of Nazareth were not thought of as important people, as world changers. They were looked down upon as slaves, as servants.

But it’s interesting to look at these two places today. Sepphoris is dead. What you see is the ruins of the town that have been excavated from the land. It is Nazareth that is the place bustling with activity, boasting a population of about 70,000 in the city limits and about 200,000 in the greater metropolitan area. Perhaps it has something to do with the name of the town and its connection with a prophecy about the Messiah. Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word “netzer” meaning “branch or shoot that would come forth from a tree that had been cut down.” And in Isaiah 11 the prophet foretells that “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” Little did the people of Nazareth know then that one of their own would be the branch from which Jesus, who described himself also as our source of living water, would come. But from this second class town, from this line of servants, from this shoot from the tree of Jesse, we get Mary and through her acceptance and obedience she becomes part of the plan to bring forth the Messiah.

Not only does God choose a humble place, he chooses a humble person in Nazareth. There is nothing special about Mary on the surface that would set her apart from the other women of the town. She is a young woman betrothed to be married. But her actions indicate that she lived into the meaning of her name “one who trusts.” When the angel speaks of this incredible thing that is about to happen to her, Mary could have refused, she could have argued, or offered up excuses. But she instead she asks a single question about biology, and is told it will happen through the power of the Holy Spirit. She is also given a sign of proof; her older cousin Elizabeth, thought to be barren, is already six months pregnant, “for nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responds to all of this with great faith by saying, " I am a servant of the Lord, may it be with me as you have said.” And the angel departs.

With those words she has changed the whole course of her life. The law said that women who were engaged and found to be pregnant by someone else were to be stoned to death. She said “Yes” knowing that might be a result. She said “Yes” knowing that some women die in childbirth. She said “Yes” knowing that it might mean the end of her relationship with Joseph and all of her hopes and dreams for marriage and a future. Despite all of this, the fear, the trepidation, the uncertainty, she does not rebel, she does not beg out. She says yes.

This young girl, barely a teenager, is thrust into an incredible situation. But through her humility, through her faith, through her obedience, she becomes one of the greatest examples of faith the world has ever known.

In his book, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Rev. Adam Hamilton tells a story about a Christmas pageant one year at a church. Dozens of children had come out for the chance to sing and dance and dress up. Little boys were fighting over the chance to be wise men, shepherds, even the animals. Little girls were anxious to have the prestigious role of Mary. There was even a little competition to be part of the angel chorus if you didn’t get any of the other roles. But as everyone was getting ready, the pastor got all of the children's attention and asked the all important question: “Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary?”

“Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary?” Probably not. I’m sure she had hopes and dreams for her own life. Answering God’s call meant setting aside her own plans. This morning I do not want you to struggle. I want you to be Mary. A great place to take that step, to live as Mary did, is right here at the rail. I want all of us to be able to look to God and say yes. Mary is a reminder for us that Christmas is not about what we buy or where we eat or whom you spend the day with. It’s about your willingness to say to God…..“Here I am Lord. Use me according to your will.”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bible Challenge 12/4 - 12/10

Greetings All!

We're in our last month of reading now and by the end of the year we will have read through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice! This week we finish up the last two chapters of II Corinthians before reading six other epistles (or letters) of the Apostle Paul to the churches: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians. For me it's so interesting to read Paul's letters, realizing his heart for the churches that he has planted. Hopefully the historical information below will give you fresh eyes as you read these letters and think about the issues they were addressing.

Galatians -The book of Galatians is thought to be Paul's earliest letter, corresponding with the events of Acts 11:30. Here he addresses a group of churches in a Roman province known as Galatia, now in modern-day Turkey. This letter mainly addresses the question of whether the Mosaic law is binding on Gentiles.

Ephesians - Here Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus (now Selcuk, Turkey) while he is imprisoned in Rome (about 62AD) to address the unity of the church between its many Jewish and Gentile believers. Ephesus was the second largest city in the Roman empire in Paul's day and home to one of the seven ancient wonders of the world (temple of Artemis). Paul started the church in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 18 and eventually he would send his young protege Timothy to serve as their pastor. One of my favorite passages is Paul's admonition in Ephesians 6 to put on the full armor of God.

Philippians - Philippians has a different tone than many of Paul's letters - it is written about 62AD to the church in Philippi (now Filippoi, Greece) which was one of the first church's that Paul ever started. From the tone of his letter, Philippi is often called Paul's "sweetheart" church. We also find here one of the most powerful and oft quoted pieces of Scripture: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).

Colossians - Colossians is directed to the church at Colosse (now Honaz, Turkey) and was probably written during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome. Apparently, the church had been incorporating pagan elements into their practice including the worship of elemental spirits and Paul's letter declares Christ's supremacy over the entire created universe and reminds the believers to live godly lives.

I and II Thessalonians - The last two books this week are directed at the church of Thessalonica (which still exists today in Greece) and are written probably only months apart around 52AD. Paul only stayed with this church for a few weeks after beginning it and seems to be writing the first letter to encourage them in their faith and remind them of some important doctrines of the faith. Apparently there was some misunderstanding regarding the return of Christ and the second shorter letter appears to deal solely with correcting that understanding.

Here is this week's schedule:

04, Sunday: II Corinthians 12 - Galatians 2

05, Monday: Galatians 3-6

06, Tuesday: Ephesians 1-4

07, Wednesday: Ephesians 5 - Philippians 2

08, Thursday: Philippians 3 - Colossians 2

09, Friday: Colossians 3 - I Thessalonians 2

10, Saturday: I Thessalonians 3 - II Thessalonians 2

May God add His richest blessings to the reading, the hearing and  the living out of His holy word. Amen.

Have a great weekend,

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Fives

1. Preaching Series – This week we will begin our Advent preaching series, Mary's Christmas. This series will take us on a journey through the story of Advent, through the events of Christ's birth, all through the eyes of Mary.  Come and join us as we look to this wonderful story, through the eyes of a young girl, through the lens of a faithful servant, through the experience of one of God's chosen.  Each week we will look to a different character through the eyes of Mary, beginning this week with Mary herself.  Bring a friend and come and join us for worship.

2. Bible Study - We have began our new Bible Study series entitled, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. I invite you to join us, on this DVD study, as we journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We will join Adam Hamilton on his travels through these locations to rediscover the birth of Christ. We will look at historical information, archaeological data, and take a personal look at some of the stories surrounding the birth. I am sure the most amazing moment in history will become more real and heart-felt as you join us and we walk along this road together.

The class will meet each Thursday through December 22nd, at two different times: 10:00am and 7:00pm, in the Fellowship Hall.  The cost is free. If you would like the book, which is not required, it is $12.  It is never too late to join and I know you will be changed by this series and I would love to see you there!

3. Christmas Gift Cards - If you normally buy gift cards for the holidays I want to invite you to consider buying them through the church this year. This is an excellent way for you to buy those cards for your loved ones and allows the church to raise extra funds, all at the same time. In order to guarantee delivery by the 25th, your order must be in by noon, on 12/12.  For a full listing of all participating vendors you can contact Carole in the church office.

4. Open House - On behalf of my family I would like to invite each of you to come by the parsonage, this Sunday, 12/4, from 12pm-1:30pm for our open house.  Come to worship at 10:30am, stay for lunch afterwards, and then come on by and see what the parsonage looks like all decorated.  You are invited to come and enjoy some light refreshments and spend some time in fellowship with one another.

5. December Newsletter - The December Newsletter is available in the narthex so be sure to pick your copy up.  You can also go over to our church website, and view it there as well.

Have a great weekend and I will see you soon!