2Jan

Cove Presbyterian Church Worship Service - December 24, 2017

Below is the podcast of the service I led on Sunday, December 24, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. During the service, we celebrated a special Christmas communion.

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2Jan

Two Ridges Presbyterian Church Worship Service - December 24, 2017

Below is the podcast of the service I led on Sunday, December 24, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. 

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2Jan

Sunday’s Sermon - What Happened to the Shepherds?

Below is the podcast of the message I offered ed on Sunday, December 24, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, videos, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

 

Luke 2:8-20

 

And there were shepherds in that country, passing the night in the open, keeping watch during the night over their flocks. And the Lord’s angel stood by them and the Lord’s glory shined around them, and they were terribly afraid. And the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy with will be for all people, that a savior was born to you today who is Christ, the Lord, in the city of David. And this is a sign for you, you will find an infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there appeared with the angel the entire host of heaven, praising God and saying,

Glory in the highest to God

and upon earth, peace to people in whom he is pleased.

 

And it happened, with the angels went from them into heaven, the shepherds spoke to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord made known to us. And they went with haste and discovered Mary and Joseph and the infant, lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the words with were spoken to them concerning this child. And all who heard wondered concerning what was spoken by the shepherds to them. But Mary kept safe all these words, reflecting in her heart. And the shepherds turned back, glorifying and praising God all the things they’d heard and seen, just as it was spoken to them.

 

What Happened to the Shepherds?

 

Today is Christmas Eve, wow. And I’ll tell you, I believe how a person responds to that fact is really based on his or her age. I mean, if you’re under the age of, let’s say, twenty-two, your response is probably something like, “What took so long?” But if you’re over twenty-two, the fact that it’s already December 24, well, I know I’m thinking, “Where did the time go? It seems like yesterday was Thanksgiving.” Of course, since we’re within hours of Christmas, tomorrow is what it’s all about, right? And we’re thinking about stuff like Santa Claus and candlelight services and of course, the Cavaliers playing Golden State later in the afternoon. What we’re generally not thinking about are sermons. For good or for bad, that can wait until the fruit cake is at least half gone.

 

But I’ll tell you, that wasn’t the case for me about thirty-five years ago. You see, it was back when I was first considering seminary. Some time around Christmas, my mother and I talking about sermons, you know, about how a good message can really get a congregation thinking. Anyway, I remember she told me that, even though she’d grown up in the church and attended it her whole life, there was only one sermon that she remembered from her youth. And it was one preached by Andy Wilkerson right about this time of year. She said that right at the beginning of the message, Rev. Wilkerson asked a very simple, straight-forward question. He asked, “What happened to the shepherds?” You know, those guys who were “keeping watch over their flocks by night” when “...lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore of afraid.” In other words, in his sermon, my mom’s preacher talked about what, in the light of this really life-changing event, those shepherds did the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. And although I don’t recall my mother explaining exactly what he said, she certainly remembered the image and the approach. I mean, that was a sermon that she’d remembered for, at that time, about thirty-five, maybe forty years; one that tried to answer a simple, and yet profound question: What happened to the shepherds?

 

And I’ll tell you, as I’ve considered this passage, I’ve thought a lot about this question, and not just because it’s Christmas Eve. You see, in a very real way, this morning, we’re sort of there with those shepherds. In fact, they’re the characters in this story with whom we can most identify, aren’t they? I mean, like them, we’ve heard the announcement of the angel, because we’ve read the story in Luke. And like them, we’ve also, in a sense, gone to Bethlehem and kind of peered into the manger. And in just a few minutes, again like the shepherds, we’re going to be leaving this place, and heading home, back to our every day lives, back to the daily grind, back to the sheep wandering around in the field. Let’s face it, we’ve got a lot in common with those shepherds; therefore, it seems to me, that what happened to them may have a lot to do with us, you know, with how we feel and think and act after Christmas.

 

For example, what did the shepherds feel? I mean, what did they feel in their heart of hearts, after “the Lord’s angel stood by them and the Lord’s glory shined around them, and they were terribly afraid,” and after “...the angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy with will be for all people, that a savior was born to you today who is Christ, the Lord, in the city of David. And this is a sign for you, you will find an infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,’” and after “...there appeared with the angel the entire host of heaven, praising God and saying, Glory in the highest to God and upon earth, peace to people in whom he is pleased.”? After all this, what did those shepherds feel? I mean, did they return to the unspeakable boredom and frustration that must be part of being a shepherd? I’ll tell you, sometimes I get bored, and I’m not even working with sheep twenty-four, seven. I can’t image being stuck out in some deserted field, keeping watch over a flock by night. Talk about boring. And frustrations, man, I get frustrated when Maggie is slow to do something I really want her to do, and I know she’s smarter than a sheep...most of the time. In other words, were those shepherds the same as before or were they emotionally changed? I mean, were they changed by what they saw and heard, and did a new sense of joy, joy grounded in the awareness that something pretty dramatic had just happened, that a new day was dawning, that the time of healing and salvation was just beginning, did all this push aside the old frustrations and did a new excitement, a new enthusiasm, a new anticipation kind of overwhelm the old feeling of boredom? Did this happen because they heard the voice of those angels? You see, when it comes to their feelings, what happened to the shepherds?

 

But, you know, that’s not all. I also wonder, what did the shepherds think? My goodness, they’d already been through an awful lot that evening. “After the angels went from them into heaven, [and] the shepherds spoke to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord made known to us’” and after “...they went with haste and discovered Mary and Joseph and the infant, lying in the manger,” and after “...they made known concerning the words with were spoken to them concerning this child, and all who heard wondered concerning what was spoken by the shepherds to them;” good night, after all that, what was going on in the minds of those shepherds? I mean, did they go back to the focus they had before, you know, thinking about where they would take the sheep when they’d eaten all the grass, and were they alert to all those things that go bump in the night, you know, animals that might carry off a couple of lambs? In other words, were those shepherds unchanged, or were they mentally changed by what had happened? I mean, did their thoughts shift because they’d seen something they couldn’t have expected, and I’m talking about seeing the savior of the world, in fact, seeing their savior lying in a manger and as a result, were they able to shift their focus from all the stuff that’s involved in taking care of sheep? You see, I wonder if they started to think about God a little bit more than they did the day before, you know, about how loved them so much that he entered their time and space so that they could know and trust, to the Lord and creator of the universe, the judge of heaven and earth, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, becoming a weak and vulnerable child? And were they able to look beyond the immediate, beyond the fields, beyond the flocks into the future, a future that will be made secure by that little baby in the manger, a future that they had the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy right here and now? Did this happen because they saw the infant Christ? You see, when it comes to their thoughts, what happened to the shepherds?

 

And finally, what did those shepherds do? Although we know that they “...turned back, glorifying and praising God all the things they’d heard and seen, just as it was spoken to them,” in other words, we know that was their first reaction to what they felt and thought, I just wonder what they did later, you know, the next day and the next week and the next year? I mean, let’s face it, it’s mighty easy to get all fired up about something that’s new and exciting; man, people do that kind of thing all the time. I mean, something happens, maybe they get a little scared or they dodge a bullet, and they swear they’re going to be different people. But along comes tomorrow, and well, that’s a different story. That’s just who we are. And I’ll tell you, that’s why I just wonder if, after a while, with respect to what they did, I just wonder if those shepherds were pretty much the same as before, you know, as they went back to the sheep business, or were their actions changed? I mean, were they ready, even anxious to share the new reality that they’d seen and heard to others, through both their words, but maybe more importantly, their actions? In other words, did they start living lives that reflected the two commands that baby in the manger would one day give his followers? Did they demonstrate love for both God and neighbor in their attitudes and their actions? You see, when it comes to their actions, what happened to the shepherds?

 

Now like I said, that was the sermon that my mom remembered from her childhood. And I’ll tell you, her memory had an impact on me, I mean, why else would I have preached this sermon? But you know, as interesting and important as I think the question is, I honestly believe there’s one that’s more important than what happened to the shepherds? You see, as we leave this Christmas Eve and move onto Christmas and then enter into a new year, I think it’s really important for us to simply ask ourselves: In light of what we’ve seen and heard and as we consider our feelings and thoughts and actions, what’s going to happen to us?

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30Dec

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - Approaching a New Year

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find other devotions, sermons, essays, videos, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.


If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Colossians 1:9-14

 

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

Approaching a New Year

 

In a couple of days, we’ll be in a new year. And although we might not want to admit it, we actually have a limited amount of control over what’s going to happen. I mean, I think we can pretty much draw a line through international relations and national politics; those are above and beyond our control. And within our community, the economy will be shaped by a lot of factors, and in the church, for everything we do to meet a personal need, someone else will probably feel as though we’re neglecting them. And even in our personal lives, we’d all like to think that we’ll be healthy and happy, but let’s get real, bad things happen to good people. That’s just the way it was and will always be.

 

Still there are some things over which we do have control, and some of them are listed by Paul in the passage we read. For example, we can decide to lead lives that bring glory to Jesus Christ, lives that reflect his will and his love. And we can try our best to be both strong and patient along with working a little joy and thanksgiving into our attitude. In other words, as we approach this new year, with all it’s potential and opportunities, we can choose to live as though we actually believe that we’ve been rescued from the darkness and brought into the light.

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23Dec

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - The Future

Below is the podcast a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find other devotions, sermons, essays, videos, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Jeremiah 31:10-14

 

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,

and declare it in the coastlands far away;

say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,

and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."

 

For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,

and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

 

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,

over the grain, the wine, and the oil,

and over the young of the flock and the herd;

their life shall become like a watered garden,

and they shall never languish again.

 

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,

and the young men and the old shall be merry.

I will turn their mourning into joy,

I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

 

I will give the priests their fill of fatness,

and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

 

The Future

 

There are days when I worry about the future. I mean, from where I stand, things just don’t seem to be going in the right direction, you know, that America has sort of lost it’s way. And it’s not just about politics and the economy. It seems we’re willing to overlook the moral failings of our leaders like no time I remember in my sixty years. In fact, it appears as though blatantly immoral actions are far less important than ones position on gun control, and that’s especially true of some of the most overtly Christian folks in our nation. And I read this morning about how global warming will result not only in rising seas and climate change, it’s also going to trigger more volcanic activity, just what we need. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and it makes me sad knowing that the world I’m handing over to my daughter is in much worse shape than the one I received from my parents. Frankly, I worry about the future, particularly her future.

 

But when I say “future” I’m talking about something that’s immediate, because I’m confident in her, mine and our ultimate future. You see, that’s under God’s control. And even though we give it our best shot, we lack the power to pry it from his hands. In other words, despite our best efforts to mess up the world that he’s entrusted to our care, God hasn’t given up on his flock. And the time will come when he will lead us into a new world, one grounded in his power and love and not our arrogance and weakness.

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22Dec

Friday’s Essay - Santa and Jesus

Below is the podcast of an essay I sent to the Cove Presbyterian Church emailing list. You can find other essays, sermons, devotions, videos, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.


If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

I finished the bulletin we’ll use for the Candlelight Christmas Eve service a couple of hours ago. And since I had some room, I included the letter from Virginia O'Hanlon to the New York Sun and the response from the paper. Now if you never read it, it deals with the existence of Santa Claus, and the position of The Sun was that Santa is real. As it stated in the last paragraph: “No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” I remember, when I was a child, dad read me the letter, and I guess it’s always had a special place in my heart.

 

But, on another level, it points to an issue with which some Christian parents struggle this time of year, namely what role should Santa play in the lives of their children during this celebration of Jesus’s birth? Of course, for most folks, this isn’t a big deal, not when compared with all the other stuff they have to face just living. And I’ll tell you, it’s not all that different from the angst some moms and dads go through around Halloween, you know, whether allowing their children to trick or treat is introducing them to Satanism. And so I don’t want to overblow this business of Santa and Jesus. Still, for some believers, these two figures have an uncomfortable, even a strained relationship this time of year.

 

And because of that, they look for ways to resolve this situation. I mean, some choose to exorcize the big guy from the holiday, as though the twenty-fifth isn’t big enough for both. Of course, that’s really challenging, because even those who believe there’s a war on Christmas would put Santa on the pro-Christmas side of the wall; therefore, cutting him out would seem to be moving to the dark side. Still, some parents give it a shot. But others try to bring the two together into one holiday omelet. Let me explain. I remember a couple of years ago, a very sincere and dedicated Christian lady gave me a snow globe with Santa kneeling at the manger. Of course, I understood her point and recognized her desire to marry these two powerful images into one. But I have to admit, I’m a little uncomfortable with the pairing. Jesus Christ represents the incarnation of God, in other words, the divine taking upon himself not just human flesh but also human limitations. And as the Evangelist Luke took great pains to show, his entry as a the baby born in Bethlehem was an event grounded in history and could be dated by looking at the emperors, kings, and governors who ruled. You see, Jesus was real. But the Santa we recognize, well, I think we’re on sand if we try to establish him in history. You see, although he’s certainly based loosely on a historical figure, the big fellow in the red suit has more to do with childhood imagination or maybe adult commerce than reality. And if we tie the historic Christ with Mr. Claus, I think we run the risk of children discarding both when they grow up and no longer hear the bell ring. And for the reason, I think we need to be careful before we conflate the stories. 

 

But I think there’s another option that just makes sense to me. Why don’t we allow both to exist independently, without viewing the profane as a threat or trying to spiritualize the secular? You see, I really believe that children can and should learn about the birth of Jesus Christ. They need to hear the story and to feel the power, just like that I think it’s important for them to learn about his life and his death and his resurrection. And even though I also believe there’s a whole different set of problems when faith is made dependent on reason rather than truth, it’s important to convey to children and adults that the incarnation is as real as divine grace and human salvation. Put another way, I think we’ve done a bad job sharing the good news if people believe they’ve outgrown Jesus. But along with the birth of Christ, I think children can also believe in Santa Claus, the guy who comes down chimneys and who leaves presents and who always eats the cookies and drinks the milk. He can be a “stand alone” figure of fun and fantasy. And even if, at best, he losses his finitude and evolves into the spirit of giving, that’s fine. We can all carry the memories of innocence and wonder into the future and pass them on to another generation without mudding the waters by inserting theological into the puddle. 

 

In other words,  I think we should let Santa be Santa and Jesus be Jesus, with one becoming a precious memory of childhood and the other the eternal savior of the universe. One doesn’t need to threaten the other nor do they have to come together any more than the Easter Bunny should be hopping past the empty tomb. Instead maybe we’d be best served by doing what people used to do, and I’m talking about not making a big deal over two things that are both good in their own way.

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21Dec

The Passages of Christmas (Session 4 - The Epiphany in Matthew)

 

During this session, we considered the story behind Epiphany, according to Matthew 2:1-23.

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: `And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

 

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

 

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

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21Dec

Sermon Preached during the Memorial Service for Madge McDougle - Peace and Hope

Below is the podcast of the entire service and copy of the message I offered on Monday, December 18, during the memorial service for Madge McDougle.

 

Well, here we are, less than a week before Christmas, remembering the life of somebody that y’all knew and loved: a friend, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother a sister in Christ who’s no longer with us. And I’ll tell you, saying that, well, it just doesn’t seem right, because death just doesn’t fit into the Christmas season, does it? 

 

I mean, Christmas supposed to be a time of joy and of peace and of hope. And yet, here we are, dealing with Madge’s death. My goodness, somehow It just doesn’t seem right that at this time of year we’re dealing with the loss of a good person, and because of that, I think it’s hard to feel joyful right now. No, what y’all may be feeling now just doesn’t seem to fit the spirit of this season of joy.

 

But you know, although I don’t think that today, this morning, joy is anything close to easy, I do think y’all can feel two other emotions that we generally associate with Christmas, and I’ll tell you, they’re feelings that can support y’all and strengthen y’all as you move through this time of grief. In other words, although right now you may not be able to feel a whole lot of joy; even in the face of death, you can feel peace and hope. And let me tell you what I mean.

 

You see, first, right here and right now, I certainly believe y’all can feel peace. I mean, just think about the Psalm we read: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” You see, that’s something we can know, that the Lord God is our helper, he protects and guides us, and he’s the one who holds us in his hands. And according to Paul, nothing can separate us from our helper, nothing can remove us from his strong and gracious hands, my goodness, “...nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” You see, right there, in these words, we can find peace, can’t we: a peace that comes from knowing that Madge was and is and will always be in the hands of God, a God who loved her before the foundation of the earth. 

 

And like a good shepherd, God has already led her through the valley of the shadow of death. For Madge that’s already happened. But you know, that’s not the only reason we can feel peace. We can also experience it by believing it ourselves, by simply trusting that God is who he said he is and that right at this moment, he couldn’t love us more than he does right now. And I’ll tell you something else, he’s going to lead y’all through this, too. Take it to the bank, he’s going to give you support and he’s going to give you comfort. And that’s something of which we can all be sure. You see, in middle of your grief, you can know peace. And that’s one aspect of the Christmas season we can feel this morning.

 

But you know, that’s not all. Second, I also think y’all can feel hope, hope grounded in the word and promises of God.  I mean, just think about what Isaiah saw, a time when those who have gone before us “will mount up with wing like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.” And of course John, that wonderful vision he had of our future, in a new heaven and a new earth, a place where God will wipe away all tears from our eyes and where there will be no death and no sorrow and no crying and no pain. You see, that’s our future, a new world, a recreated world. And I’ll tell you, Madge is going to be there, and so will Raymond and all her brothers and sisters. In other words, the time is coming when you’re going to see Madge again, probably playing bingo or working on some puzzles. And we’ll be in a new and glorious world. You see, that’s the nature of our hope. 

 

And in the meantime, in this time of separate, as y’all look forward to this day, y’all can remember. Y’all can remember all those qualities that Madge showed qualities that made her the special person that she was. And y’all can tell the stories, stories that I don’t know but that you do, stories that will keep her alive in our hearts and our minds. And y’all can look forward to the day, the day when we’ll all be together. You see, right now, we can certainly live with hope. 

 

And so, I know it’s difficult to deal with this kind of loss so close to Christmas and because of that, feeling joy is sort of a reach. Still, I think y’all can still feel peace and hope, peace knowing that Madge is in the hands of God and so are we, and hope grounded in the assurance that one day you’re going to see her again in a new and glorious world, one where there’ll be no more partings or pain and death. And although it may not come this year, maybe during some future Christmas season, you’ll be able to look back on the life of our sister Madge and look forward to the reunion coming in the future and truly feel joy.

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20Dec

Cove Presbyterian Church Worship Service - December 17, 2017

Below is the podcast of the service I led on Sunday, December 17, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. The include a performance by a flute trio and a performance by students from Weir High School.

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20Dec

Sunday’s Sermon - Gifts and Givers

Below is the podcast of the message I offered ed on Sunday, December 17, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find other sermons, devotions, videos, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Well, here we are, making the last turn and heading for the homestretch. And I’ll tell you, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you’ve been living under a rock since the beginning of September, which is about the time they started putting out the Christmas stuff at Walmart. Now, you realize that in seven days it’ll be Christmas Eve. Which means for me, I’ve still got plenty of time to shop for Debbie. As a matter of fact, so long as the Marathon Gas Station stays open next Sunday evening, I’m sure I’ll be able to get her those wiper blades she’s had her eyes on. And there’s nothing like a quart of motor oil to stuff a stocking. 

 

Of course, all this is important because gifts are a big part of Christmas. I remember, back when I was teaching high school, I’d ask my kids two questions around this time of year. I’d ask them to write down the worst gift and the best gift they’d ever received. And I’ll tell you, I’d get all kinds of answers. I mean, with the best gifts, some would say things that were really big, you know, like cars and game systems and vacations. And then I’d get some that were sort of sentimental, usually from the girls, like a visit from their grandparents or something like that. And then there’d be some of my favorite ones of all, and I’m talking about the suck-ups who’d say something like, “The best gift I’ve ever received is having Mr. Rudiger as my history teacher.” Do you know what you call that answer? Two words: extra credit. Now those were the best gifts. And the worst, well, a lot would say “a card” or “underware” or any amount under five dollars. Now that’s the kind of things they’d usually say.

 

Of course, they were young, and so their answers were pretty much what I expected. In fact, they’re the stuff I’d have said when I was their age. But I’ll tell you, as I’ve gotten older, well, my answer has changed, especially as it relates to the gifts that I consider best. You see, for me, the most special gifts are the ones that involve some sacrifice on the part of the giver. Now, I’m not talking about cutting off an arm or anything crazy like that, and I’m not really talking about money. But something that a person took the time to make, well, for me that’s special, because I’ve got to tell you, from where I stand, there’s nothing more precious than time. You see, there’s just something special knowing that the gift involved a little more effort than scrolling through Amazon. I’m more touched by that kind of gift and feel closer to the giver. 

 

But I’ll tell you, that goes beyond just the stuff I receive. As the giver, I feel different when I give something that represents more to me than money. I remember, maybe forty years ago, I gave my mom this little pillow I’d made, with a this counted cross-stitch design on the front. Now I felt really proud of that little gift, which wasn’t nearly as well-made as something from an Indonesian factory. But you know, although I’ve given my mom hundreds of presents, that’s one that I still remember. Because in giving something I made, I was giving a little of myself. And I’ll tell you, that made the gift special, at least it did to me.

 

Of course, as we think about Christmas gifts and givers, we really don’t want to forget about the greatest gift of all. And of course, I’m talking about the gift of Jesus Christ, the one whose birth we’ll be celebrating in a week. You see, it was through that little baby that God entered our space, something that the Apostle described to the Philippians. He wrote, “Christ was truly God. But he did not try to be equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down, those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And to the glory of God the Father everyone will openly agree, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’” [Philippians 2:6-11, CEV] Now, I’m telling you, this is God’s gift to us. In fact, I think you could call it the ultimate sacrificial gift, because it involved his death on the cross. 

 

And I’ll tell you something else, this gift can absolutely change us, and I’m talking about the ones who received it. You see, because of what God has freely given, the world will never be the same, and I’ll tell you why. If we trust that it’s real and that it has power and that it’s been given to us with no strings attached, now we have reason to know peace, and I’m talking about real peace, because when Jesus died on the cross, we died too. And when we died, the power of sin was broken forever and we were set free, free from worry and shame and guilt and free to live lives that reflect the love and the grace and the mercy of God. Again, just listen to what Paul wrote, “But the gift that God was kind enough to give was very different from Adam’s sin. That one sin brought death to many others. Yet in an even greater way, Jesus Christ alone brought God’s gift of kindness to many people. There is a lot of difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gift. That one sin led to punishment. But God’s gift made it possible for us to be acceptable to him, even though we have sinned many times. Death ruled like a king because Adam had sinned. But that cannot compare with what Jesus Christ has done. God has been so kind to us, and he has accepted us because of Jesus. And so we will live and rule like kings. ...Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 5:15-17; 6:23, CEV] You see, through God’s gift to us, man, those who receive it are changed. 

 

But I’ll tell you something else, so is the giver; he was changed too, and now I’m talking about God. You see, when he humbled himself and entered human time and space, he saw the world through our eyes. And as such, he experienced human frustration and fear. He experienced human compassion and concern. And he experienced human pain and isolation, even isolation God himself. I mean, listen to how Mark described Jesus’s last moments on the cross: “About noon the sky turned dark and stayed that way until around three o’clock. Then about that time Jesus shouted, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’” [Mark 15:33-34] I’m telling you, God knows how we feel. And that’s good for us. It’s like the writer to the Hebrews said, “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin! So whenever we are in need, we should come bravely before the throne of our merciful God. There we will be treated with undeserved kindness, and we will find help.” [Hebrews 4:15-16] You see, through the gift, and I’m talking about his gift to us, the nature of the God changed.

 

And so, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the gifts we give and receive at Christmas or that story about two people sacrificing for one another or the Lord and creator of the universe offering himself for our sake, gifts have power. They have the power to change both the one who gives and the one who receives. And so, as we exchange presents in about a week, let’s also claim the most precious gift of all, Bethlehem’s child, and then we’ll be changed.

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