Aging Grace-Fully (Luke 2:25-35)

  • I used to fear getting older
  • I thought of a poem an older preacher used to use:
I can see with my bifocals
my dentures work just fine
I can live with my arthritis
but I sure do miss my mind
  • but now, instead of fearing older people, I like to learn from them
  • this past week, I read about a man named Leslie Newbigin
  • at 87 years of age, Newbigin spent 35 years in India as a career missionary
  • but when he returned home to England, he found that his native country had become a foreign mission field, in some ways more hostile to the Gospel than India was
  • in his retirement, at the age of 70, he sat on his denomination's local council
  • discussion began on what to do with a 120-year old slum church of 20 people
  • the council wanted to close it down, but Newbigin couldn't bring himself to agree
  • he told the council that "if the Church abandoned such areas in order to settle in the relatively easy circumstances of the suburbs it would forfeit the claim to be a missionary Church"
  • and so the council agreed with him, on one condition: that Newbigin become the unpaid pastor of that tiny church
  • there are other stories
  • but one of the remarkable things about this man is that a large part of his impact has taken place after his retirement
  • one of my local heroes, before he died last year, was Robertson Davies
  • Davies, of course, is that proud, square-ribbed figure with the flowing white beard, and author of such books as Fifth Business and World of Wonders
  • one thing that amazes me about Robertson Davies is that he wrote his first widely acclaimed book, Fifth Business, at the age of 57, beginning an unexpected second wind, the beginning of a 25-year homestretch
  • or perhaps you heard about the gentleman on the news last week
  • he had just turned 63
  • when he was a child, some other children had thrown dirt at him, and it caused him to go blind in one eye
  • last week we was walking in a shopping mall, and accidentally ran into a post
  • and his sight was restored
  • he calls it a Christmas miracle
  • at the age of 63, he can see for the first time since his childhood
  • for him, life is getting better
  • this week, we're entering a new year
  • I don't care how old you are, you will be another year older
  • I've found that it's impossible for human beings to remain static
  • like water, we grow colder over time unless something is done about it
  • this year you will either become a more humble and obedient person, or you will become a more self-serving and prideful person
  • it's impossible to stay at your current level of spirituality, whatever that might be
  • you're either going to grow and mature, or you are going to decline
  • I'm grateful that the Scripture tells us how we can age grace-fully
  • by grace-fully I don't mean graceful like a swan or a ballerina
  • I mean full of grace
  • I believe it's possible as we age to become more full of God's grace and less full of ourselves
  • and Scripture holds some examples of people who did this
  • two of the most interesting people in the entire Christmas story were like this
  • their names are not as well known as Mary and Joseph, or John the Baptist
  • but they have captured my imagination from the time I was a child
  • their names were Simeon and Anna
  • we don't know much about them
  • we are told in Luke 2 that Simeon was a righteous man and very devout
  • he was found in the Temple and was full of the Holy Spirit, waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah
  • legend has it that Simeon was 113 years old, but Scripture nowhere mentions his age
  • although most people believe he was on the older side
  • Simeon was told by the Holy Spirit, according to Luke 2:26, that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah
  • and the second person from whom I want to learn this morning is named Anna
  • her story is found in the same passage in Luke 2
  • it appears that Simeon and Anna did not know each other
  • Anna is described as a prophet, a very old woman, a widow
  • Scripture tells us her age - eighty-four years old
  • it also tells us that "she never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer"
  • she came along just as Simeon was praising God for the baby Jesus, and she then began to praise God, talking about Jesus and as the Messiah
  • very odd story, a story that captures the imagination
  • I believe that Simeon and Anna give us an important lesson on how to age grace-fully, that is, full of grace
  • THE LESSON IS THIS: TRUE HAPPINESS AND PEACE IS FOUND EXCLUSIVELY IN THE PERSON OF JESUS CHRIST
  • 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
  • 29 "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.
  • 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
  • 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
  • 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
  • Simeon says, "Lord, now I can die in peace! As you promised me, I have seen the Savior"
  • Simeon knows that he can be content with his life, since he has had the honor of witnessing God's salvation
  • this attitude is important, because it puts the other events and traumas of life into perspective
  • if this can be how Simeon feels, knowing that death is approaching, how should we feel when many of us have much life ahead of us?
  • Simeon's attitude stands in marked contrast to much that takes place in our culture
  • two years ago, McCall's magazine ran a short article on New Year's resolutions entitled "Ten Little Health Resolutions (With Big Payoffs)
  • now, health and exercise are important, and we ought to hold both highly
  • but what was interesting is a look at the top four resolutions we make, according to a Gallup poll:
    1. improve personal finances
    2. stop smoking
    3. lose weight
    4. get more exercise
  • as admirable as these resolutions are, none of these goals could be called lofty
  • none of them relate to the most important aspect of life: relationships
  • neither God nor family make any appearance in these resolutions
  • since we set goals that have nothing to do with relationships, many of us find ourselves lonely and discontent, because God has created us to relate to him and others
  • where are the goals of pursuing God and knowing him better?
  • why do resolutions for the most part deal with external matters?
  • why is the soul so unimportant?
  • I ask myself, if exercise is so valuable for physical well-being, should we starve our inner being?
  • if contentment is based on externals that slowly wither away, will we not set ourselves up for disappointment if we focus on such goals?
  • Simeon suggests a better way
  • to know God is best
  • that means we can transcend circumstances, because to know him means to "have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content" (Philippians 4:11)
  • to know Jesus Christ is to have peace
  • Simeon can be content as he faces death, knowing that he has been carrying out the Lord's call
  • His goal is knowing God, with whom he will have a relationship forever
  • contentment means knowing the source of life who can help us see even beyond our death
  • it's possible to climb the ladder of success, only to find out that it's been leaning against the wrong wall
  • in November 1972, Charles Colson was by most measurements a success story
  • as special counsel to the president of the United States, he had just masterminded the landslide reelection of Richard Nixon to the Presidency of the United States
  • he writes, "Election night...should have been the proudest moment of my life...The President had spoken of great goals, and at long last they seemed within reach. For the first time in years, there was stability in the country. The war in Vietnam was nearly over and we had won an overwhelming vote of public confidence. What was it that was now unsettling us, invading our midst, right here in the heart of governmental power? Bring the question closer to home, what was spoiling inside of me?"
  • a short while later, in the middle of the Watergate controversy, Colson visited with a successful executive named Tom Phillips
  • executive vice-president at age 37, president when he was only 40, he had risen to the top with hard work, day and night, nonstop
  • but he confessed:
    The success came all right, but something was missing. I felt a terrible emptiness. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night and pace the floor of my bedroom or stare out in the darkness for hours at a time...there was a big whole in my life. I began to read the Scriptures, looking for answers. Something made me realize I needed a personal relationship with God
  • listen to what he said:
  • "All the material things in life are meaningless if man hasn't discovered what's underneath them"
  • Douglas Coupland wrote a book, Life Without God
  • he's the unofficial voice of the Baby Buster generation
  • he's written Generation X and Shampoo Planets
  • in this book, he calls his contemporaries the first generation raised without religion
  • and you get some sense in this book of the aimlessness, purposelessness of the main character of this book
  • he can't escape the guilt he feels
  • his wife leaves him because she falls out of love with him, and he can't bring himself to love again
  • he feels trapped in a meaningless job
  • he puts up with shallow relationships
  • he says, "I'm tired of compromising"
  • he complains that he doesn't feel life like he used to
  • after 358 pages, let me read the conclusion of the book:
    Now, here is my secret. I tell you with an openness of heart I doubt I will ever have again. So I pray you're in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God. My secret is that I need God, that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I am no longer capable of giving. To help me be kind, because I no longer seem capable of kindness. I need God to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
  • that is an honest cry from the human heart
  • Simeon teaches us what many people haven't learned, even people we would consider successes
  • true happiness and peace do not come from a successful career, or material wealth, or good health, or self-mastery, or even from good relationships
  • true happiness and peace comes from knowing Jesus Christ
  • Philippians 4:7 promises that as we know Christ and pray, "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus"
  • having seen Jesus and knowing him, Simeon is at peace
  • everything else in life pales in comparison
  • he has met Jesus, and the details of the rest of his life's r?sum? are irrelevant
  • Paul gives a similar testimony in Philippians 3:1-12
  • for him everything he has done in his life as an accomplished, successful Pharisee is like garbage compared to knowing Jesus and serving him
  • listen to me: one's walk with God and faithful service to him are what define everything else about life
  • such service can take on various forms, for not everyone who serves God will be a preacher or serve in full-time ministry in a local church
  • some, like Simeon, might be called to a special task of testimony or encouragement
  • others may be called to ministry to children
  • but Simeon knew that he could be content with life, because he had the honor of witnessing God's salvation
  • let me ask you some questions
  • what are you doing with your one and only life?
  • it's soon coming to an end
  • what are you doing with it?
  • when it ends, what regrets will you have?
  • who or what are you serving with your life?
  • career? Happiness? Success?
  • do you have a sense of emptiness, a whole in your life that nothing seems to fill?
  • do you realize that you need God?
  • do you know God?
  • do you have plans to get to know him better in the coming year?
  • Simeon said, "Lord, now I can die in peace! As you promised me, I have seen the Savior"
  • Paul says:
  • (Philippians 3:7) But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
  • (Philippians 3:8) What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ
  • what do you say?

Merry Tifton

  • if you attended Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, you would hear James Kennedy tell you a story about once every five years on Christmas Eve
  • I wanted to save you the trouble of going to Florida at Christmas, so let me tell you the story instead
  • once upon a time, long ago and far away in a strange land, there lived a man by the name of John Baresford Tifton
  • he was a man of incredible wealth beyond the farthest dream of human avarice, who had the strange habit of bequeathing a million dollars to individuals of his inscrutable choice
  • his associate, Michael Anthony, replete with briefcase, umbrella, and hat, made his way to the objects of his munificence and bestowed upon them the gift from their great benefactor
  • of course, their lives were transformed
  • at first there were just a few, then there were dozens, scores, hundreds, and finally thousands of people in his land and in lands around the world
  • at his death, Mr. Tifton left explicit instructions in his will that from his incalculable holdings of his vast real estate, this practice was to continue through the years
  • so it came to be that all over this earth, there were those who had their circumstances unbelievably transformed as they were suddenly catapulted into the rarefied atmosphere of the millionaires who received the gift
  • now it came to pass as the centuries went by that these people, who had also received his name because he had adopted them into his family and had granted them other prerequisites as well, decided that it would be well if they would get together occasionally because they had so much in common now
  • it would be especially good if they had a celebration of the birth of their benefactor
  • so they celebrated
  • of course it's obvious that they only people who had the slightest interest in celebrating the birth of Mr. Tifton were those who had received his gift
  • they were virtually a club for millionaires
  • as the years went by and the celebrations continued, there were essays written about Mr. Tifton's great character and benevolence
  • there were hymns written and sung to his praise
  • there were pictures drawn and many other ways devised to celebrate the memory of this man who had altered so many lives by his gift
  • in the process of time, at one of the celebrations of Mr. Tifton's birth, a couple of people (who not only had not received the gift, but didn't have the foggiest idea that such a gift existed) somehow wandered into a Tifton birthday celebration
  • this couple didn't quite grasp what was going on, but they did pick up the idea that somebody had given up some wonderful gifts to these people who were celebrating
  • although the couple didn't understand at all, they did think it sounded like a great idea, so they told their friends, and they told their friend, and they told their friends, and so on, and so on, and so on
  • believe it or not, the idea spread
  • before long, almost everyone was celebrating Tifton Day
  • the department stores even picked up on the idea
  • they had a keen eye for that sort of thing
  • before you know it, there were Tifton specials all over the place
  • and other things arose
  • there was the Tifton card, of course, and then came the Tifton tree
  • strange to say, the tree didn't even grow in the land where Mr. Tifton was born
  • you may not believe this, but it is actually true that in time Tifton Day became a national holiday
  • everybody was celebrating
  • one day years later on Tifton Eve, two gentlemen who had been recipients of the Tifton gift happened to land in New York Harbor
  • as they walked down the gangplank, one of them said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find someone in America who is a Tifton recipient? We could celebrate tomorrow on the birthday of our benefactor"
  • the other said, "Ah, yes, but in such a large land as this it's highly unlikely that in so short a period of time, we should be so fortunate"
  • to their utter amazement, as they walked down the street and looked into the window of the first department store that caught their eye, there was a sign shouting out, "ONLY ONE MORE DAY UNTIL TIFTON!"
  • and in the next window: "TIFTON SPECIALS: HALF OFF"
  • the two men said to each other, "We are in luck. We have found a Tifton. But isn't it strange that he calls himself Macy? Well, these Americans are an odd lot"
  • they started into the store to find the owner, when across the street they heard someone cry, "Merry Tifton!"
  • startled, they turned
  • then from their own side of the street came a chorus of voices all around them saying, "Merry Tifton and a Happy New Year!"
  • with that, they were absolutely dumbfounded
  • "Certainly," they said, "Mr. Tifton has been very prodigal with his gifts in America, unlike anything we have ever seen in his own land"
  • it came to pass in the providence of God that in the evening they found themselves invited into a large home where there was in progress another American innovation, a Tifton Eve cocktail party, in full swing
  • they noticed as they were standing in the corner that some of these people were absolutely falling down drunk, which they thought was very strange because they were quite confident that Mr. Tifton would not approve of that sort of conduct, and they could not see how this was very honoring to his memory
  • one of them said to the other, "My dear brother, this afternoon on the street when all of these people were shouting, 'Merry Tifton,' did you notice the way that some of them were dressed?"
  • "Why, yes, I did. I didn't want to say anything, but surely they did not look like millionaires to me"
  • "That's just what I thought. I can't understand it. Have you noticed here on the mantelpiece all of those Tifton cards? I've just been looking at them and the thing that absolutely astounds me and I find completely baffling is that most of them don't say anything at all about Mr. Tifton. In fact they have this picture of this fat man in this green suit in a chariot drawn by eight reindeer, one of which has a very bright nose"
  • the other man said, "Oh, yes, I noticed that. I inquired about it, and it seems that this is some character they have invented. His name, I believe, is Surper. Yes, St. Surper. I think his first name is Uriah. I believe they call him by his initial, uh, U. Surper. St. U. Surper, I believe, is his full name. It seems that so many of their Tifton songs are not about Tifton but about Mr. U. Surper. I find this difficult to understand. Perhaps one of these people here at the party could enlighten us."
  • and so they turned to the man who was closest to them and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Tifton"
  • the fellow looked at them and said, "You must be tipsier than I am. Mike's the name - Michael Mythology. What can I do for you?"
  • they said, "Would you kindly explain something to us, Sir? We're a little bit confused. I do suppose that you have receive the million dollars?"
  • "The what?"
  • "The million dollars? The gift from Mr. Tifton?"
  • "A million dollars? Man," he said, "I had to borrow three hundred dollars from the finance company to buy my Tifton gifts this year! What are you talking about?"
  • they said, "Well, why are you celebrating Tifton Day? What is it all about?"
  • "Oh ho!" he said. "Well, that's easy. You understand that there was this fellow they say named Tifton, who had a way of giving presents to people. I don't know what they were - ties, neckties, handkerchiefs, pajamas, that sort of thing. And, uh, of course, uh, some people think that he really lived, but we today in our sophisticated, modern world know that it's all a myth. Nevertheless, it is a nice idea. We picked up the idea and we give gifts and sort of change it around a little bit. But that's basically the idea. You don't really think there's anything to that old idea that he really lived and actually gave some important gifts to people? Of course we don't, but it is nice"
  • "Yes," said the visitors, "we can see from that purple tie with the orange stripes you're wearing that this is a very significant day in your life"
  • Mike staggered away even more baffled than before
  • they said to another man, "Sir, could you please help us? Could you tell us? Could you tell us, have you received the gift of a million dollars?"
  • "Huh?" they said, "Man, I don't even know what you're talking about!"
  • they said, "Tell us, Sir, why do you celebrate Tifton Day?"
  • he said to them, "Well, that's an absurd question. Everybody celebrates Tifton Day. When I was just a child, I used to hang up my Tifton stocking on the mantelpiece. My parents and my grandparents celebrated Tifton Day. Everybody celebrates Tifton Day. What's wrong with you foreigners coming over here questioning our customs?"
  • and he sort of wandered away
  • the two still could not understand
  • they decided they should make one last effort
  • having talked to this gentleman, Mr. Traditional, and not getting much help, they asked one other man who introduced himself as Mr. Bootstraps
  • "Benny Bootstraps," he said his name was, and he'd be glad to help them
  • sure, he could explain the meaning of Tifton Day
  • "Well, you see, there was this fellow named Tifton; started out very poor, I understand. His whole life was written up in a big black book. Most of us have them, but nobody reads it much anymore. Anyway, it tells us the principles of success he used to make a million. The idea is that we will read that book and follow those principles so we can become rich, too. I think that's the basic idea that's found in the book. You know, sort of reach down and give yourself a good tug"
  • they said, "What about the gift?"
  • Mr. Bootstraps said, "What gift is that?"
  • about that time, there was a knock on the door
  • and when no one answered, the door opened, and there appeared the perennial descendent of Michael Anthony, umbrella under his arm and briefcase in his hand
  • our two faraway friends were delighted to see that here at least at this party someone was going to receive the gift
  • and since no one paid him any mind, Mr. Anthony said, "Excuse me"
  • still, no one heard him over the laughter and hubbub of the party, and the tinkling of glasses
  • Mr. Anthony spoke again
  • "I beg your pardon, but I have here with me..."
  • his voice was drowned out
  • he made one more effort and then, disgusted, he turned and left, closing the door behind him
  • no one had seem him come
  • no one listened to his voice
  • no one received his gift
  • that is my modern parable of Christmas
  • I wonder how many here this Christmas Eve will rip of all of the ribbons, tear off all the wrappings, and open all the boxes, and find that something is still lacking
  • what has not been filled is their soul
  • there is still an emptiness in their unsatisfied hearts
  • something is still missing
  • I wonder how many of you have received the gift
  • I wonder how many of you have heard the voice
  • when the Christmas music is over, the carols have ended, and the last strains have faded away, I wonder how many of you will be left with the same silent emptiness you had before
  • I wonder how many of you have received the gift
  • I wonder most tragically of all, if there are those who in our midst today who are so spiritually blind that they don't even know what the gift is?
  • our parable has a text, and it is this: "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!"
  • do you have the gift, my friend, or are you here today a spiritual pauper in the midst of millionaires?
  • what is the gift? If you do not know, God's Word tells us, "The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"
  • have you received the gift?
  • if you have received it, then you know it
  • if you do not know it, it is because you have not received it
  • do you know that you are on your way to Paradise?
  • when you leave this life, will you be with Christ forever?
  • do you have that ironclad assurance and certainty?
  • if not, then, my friend, you are still a pauper
  • I have good news that there is someone who is offering you that gift
  • this is a gift that was not paid for with paltry cash in a department store
  • it was paid for with the precious blood of Christ on Calvary at infinite cost
  • having taken upon himself our guilt and sin, he endured the wrath of his Father in our place, so that we might be freely forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life
  • if you have received that gift, then this Christmastime you're saying with the apostle, "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift"
  • if you have not received the gift, then you can receive it today by placing your trust in Christ and receiving him as Lord and Master and Savior of your life
  • the gift can be yours
  • if you are not willing to receive it, then I suppose the only thing I could say to you is "Merry Tifton"

Glory to God in the Lowest (Luke 2:19)

  • Christmas is a time of surprises
  • there was a lady who was preparing her Christmas cookies
  • suddenly, there was a knock at the door
  • she went to find a man, his clothes poor, obviously looking for some Christmas odd jobs
  • he asked her if there was anything he could do
  • and she said, "Can you paint?"
  • "Yes," he said, "I'm a rather good painter"
  • "Well," she said, "there are two gallons of green paint there and a brush, and there's a porch out back that needs to be painted. Please do a good job. I'll pay you whatever the job is worth"
  • "Fine," he said. "I'll be done quickly"
  • she went back to her cookie making and didn't think much more about it until there was a knock at the door
  • she went, and it was obvious he had been painting: he had it on his clothes
  • "Did you finish the job," she asked
  • he said, "Yes"
  • "Did you do a good job," she asked
  • he said, "Yes. But lady, there's one thing I'd like to point out to you. That's not a Porsche back there. That's a Mercedes"
  • well, Christmas is a time of surprises
  • I think that's a good thing, because life at its best is not really measured by the breaths you take, but by the breaths you miss
  • it's those times of amazement and astonishment when suddenly your attention is carried away and your breath is as well
  • it's times like Christmas, fantastic times, when there's a song in the sky and a baby in the feedbox, and everything is gloriously topsy turvy, when the things that can't be are
  • have you ever realized that in the whole narrative of Christmas in Luke 2, Mary couldn't speak?
  • in all of Luke 2, there's not one word of Mary recorded
  • it's as if what happened to here was too deep to be expressed in syllables
  • (Luke 2:19) But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
  • she was caught up in her mind, and her thoughts were centered upon the miracle that God was performing right in front of her
  • this sort of experience is uncommon today
  • in our busyness, we are too busy to stop and think and ponder
  • we spend much more time doing than being
  • our faith has become a very exterior thing with much more commotion than devotion
  • I remember the first time I bought a hollow chocolate egg
  • I could not believe the size of the egg for the price I was paying
  • but there was one problem: I didn't understand what "hollow" meant
  • so I bit into the egg and quickly found out that the egg was impressive from the outside, but it had no core or inner substance
  • many of us are like this: we're impressive Christians on the outside, but there's no inward substance
  • we're not like Mary, who silently pondered these things in her heart
  • but friends, eternity is silent
  • we are noisy, and the speed and noise of our life signal weakness
  • especially around Christmas, but for some of us all year long, the pace of our lives make us deaf to God
  • but Christmas is a time when we can sit back and follow Mary's example
  • she held her son to her breast, and leaned against the warm damp earth, and pondered everything that had happened in her heart
  • I THINK SHE PONDERED, FIRST OF ALL, THE QUIETNESS OF GOD'S ARRIVAL
  • he did not come with noise and clamor
  • there was no Bethlehem spectacular
  • while the angels sang, there were only some shepherd boys to witness it
  • it's interesting that nowhere in Scripture does God knock anyone's door down
  • instead, it says:
  • (Revelation 3:20) Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
  • there's a painting of that by Holman Hunt in the British National Gallery in London
  • Jesus stands there, gently rapping at a door, the door unopened
  • a little boy was standing in front of that painting with his father
  • "Daddy," he said, "why don't they answer the door?"
  • the father replied, "I don't know why"
  • after a moment's pause, the little boy said, "Maybe they're making too much noise to hear him knocking"
  • that little boy was probably right
  • you see, the infinite power of God always moves in silence
  • God moves in quietness
  • that's why we best think of him when we look at flowers, or walk in woods at evening, or listen to soft poems or the gentle breezes that blow about high mountains
  • God is often where the least noise is
  • that's how God often speaks to us, isn't it?
  • he nudges us in our experiences
  • he whispers to us in the sweetness of common sense
  • he appears to us through the gentleness of some new idea
  • God talks in the gentle things of life, not in the big moments, but in the quiet Spirit-filled times
  • and so it was with Mary
  • that's what Christmas should ideally be like
  • take away the trees and cake and Elmo's
  • and what you have is a time when the whole world holds its breath and tries to hear once again the soft cry of a baby
  • God comes quietly, then and now
  • I THINK SHE ALSO PONDERED THE LOWLINESS OF HIS ARRIVAL
  • Jesus was born in what was probably a cave, one of many in that area
  • we usually think of the clean smell of fresh hay, but probably a truer Christmas smell would be the smell of layers of animal dung as the floor
  • a short distance away, within sight, was Herod's great palace built on top of a mountain, a huge structure with a pool twice the Olympic size
  • but Christ was not born there, we was born among the smell of cattle dung in a dark and damp cave
  • there was a European monarch who, a couple of times each year, would take off his royal garb and, dressed as a peasant, would go out amongst his people
  • his advisors worried about this, but the king said, "I cannot rule my people unless I know how they live"
  • God came as a baby in a cave
  • I read of a Hindu, who could not believe in Christianity because he could not contemplate a God who would so humble himself
  • then one day the he came across an anthill
  • he tried to get close enough to study it, but every time he bent low, his shadow caused all the ants to scurry away
  • he recognized to himself that the only way in which he could ever come to know that colony of ants would be if he could somehow become an ant himself
  • and that was the moment in which his conversion began
  • what is amazing is that Jesus looked down, and saw it all - becoming a little baby, living as a man, dying on a cross, and the shame
  • and yet he tumbled into our midst, taking all of our wars right into the midst of heaven's peace
  • when Mary thought about this, she just might have prayed, "Oh God, I do not want heaven if you are here on earth"
  • AND I ALSO THINK THAT MARY PONDERED THE LOWLINESS OF HIS AUDIENCE
  • the first ones to learn of Jesus' birth were the shepherds
  • if Jesus had been born in his hometown of Nazareth, after the custom of that day, there would have been musicians to serenade the birth
  • but it was not so there in Bethlehem
  • only shepherds
  • the Pharisees of that time said there were six professions that were unworthy
  • one of those was being a shepherd
  • a shepherd was not permitted to give testimony in a court of law
  • a shepherd was not permitted to enter a synagogue, because his activities were considered ritually unclean
  • people did not have dealings with shepherds
  • shepherds in that time were usually very young, just as David in the Old Testament was only a boy
  • the shepherds, of course, could not have grasped what happened
  • you can't capture Niagara in a teacup, or the ocean in a single straw
  • but they were the first to know of it
  • and you know, this reminds us that at the center of the gospel is the truth that the knowledge of God is not essentially an intellectual exercise
  • it's not something that God only gives to the powerful or the intelligent
  • it's to the shepherds
  • it's to the ungood
  • some children wrote to Santa
  • one child wrote, "Dear Santa, you did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything good the year before that. This is your last chance. Signed, Alfred"
  • another one said:
  • "Dear Santa, there are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey; he is 2. There is David; he is 4. And there is Norman; he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman"
  • but we're not Normans
  • we're shepherds
  • we need to learn humility
  • when we read about the immensities of space and realize that our lives are only the flaring of a match against eternity's darkness, we are humbled
  • I have no political significance
  • I have no distinguished vocational accomplishments
  • I look at my inner life and I see weakness and ugliness and sin
  • but Christmas speaks to all that
  • Christmas says that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise
  • that he chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong
  • that he chose that in the world that is low and despised, even the things that are not, to shame the things that are
  • Christmas is the announcement that we are worth enough to God for him to come
  • we are sending out space probes to remote areas of our solar system
  • as they go behind the moon and see parts of the universe that we've never seen before, we find that it is black and barren and broken and cold, containing nothing but death
  • these vehicles we send off carrying sophisticated, exotic equipment send back signals that tell us that other atmospheres are acrid and heated, and that there are volcanoes that spew forth noxious fumes, and there's nothing in these places but fog and ash and ice
  • then we look at world, where we see friends and fields and forests and fruits and seas and mountains, and musicians that write songs, and painters that paint pictures, and philosophers that think thoughts that haven't been thought before
  • we have dreamers who dream, visionaries who build castles in the air, and engineers who go out and put foundations under them
  • and suddenly we realize that we are the visited planet
  • this Christmas, I urge you to ponder like Mary - gentle Mary, who is ready for anything because she put her trust in God, who didn't hesitate to say that she needed the help of others because she knew that the greatest waste of life is to try to go through it all alone
  • strong Mary, who sang the victory song of the human spirit, which announced that the proud will be put down, and the righteousness and the justice of God will prevail
  • and, at the end on that night itself, loving Mary, who kept all those things and pondered them in her heart
  • if I could give each of you a Christmas gift this week, it would be the pondering heart of Mary, who lay there silent on the damp straw and suckled her child and thought of the quietness of God's arrival, the lowliness of his arrival, and the lowliness of his audience
  • glory to God in the lowest!
  • I want to wish all of you a Mary Christmas - a M-A-R-Y Christmas
adapted from a sermon preached by Bruce W. Thielemann

Satanism

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:15)

1. Types of Satanism

1.1 "Contemporary Satanism is a form of religious belief and expression holding to the worship of Satan, whether Satan is defined as a supernatural person, a deity, a devil, a supernatural force, a natural force, an innate human force, or, most commonly, the self."(1)
1.2 Most Satanists, such as Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey, worship themselves and use the term "Satan" to symbolize their rejection of Christianity, which they believe is self-sacrificing, self-debasing, self-denying, oppressive, and powerless. These Satanists do not believe in the existence of any spiritual being; they believe in the power of the self. "We don't worship Satan, we worship ourselves using the metaphorical representation of the qualities of Satan."(2)
1.3 Some Satanists believe in spiritual power, and are interested in harnessing it for self-advancement. They are sometimes unsure of whether God or Satan exist, but use this spiritual power anyway.
1.4 Some Satanists believe in competing spiritual forces, whether personal (God vs. Satan) or impersonal (good vs. evil). They choose to use the negative spiritual force.
1.5 A few Satanists (usually self-styled teenagers or mentally aberrant adults) believe what the Bible says about God and Satan, but choose allegiance to Satan.

2. Key Facts

2.1 Some teach that there are millions of secret Satanists participating in a widespread conspiracy reaching into the highest levels of church, government, law enforcement, and education. Such conspiracy theories are undocumented and sensationalistic.
2.2 While only a guess at best, careful researchers estimate that the number of people who would describe themselves as Satanists is somewhat fewer than 6,000 worldwide.
2.3 The vast majority of Satanists are self-styled. They practice their faith alone or with a few others. Very few join a public Satanic church like LaVey's Church of Satan or Aquino's Temple Sect.
2.4 Mail-order catalog and newsletter lists provide some continuity among Satanists, as well as the books of LaVey such as The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals.
2.5 Most Satanists are male, young (13-30), practice their faith privately while leading "normal" lives, and view other religions as narrow. Most view traditional ethical norms as depriving the rights of individuals, and practice Satanism because it appears to work for them.

3. Biblical Background

3.1 Satan is a fallen angel. He rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven with a great number of angels, and was sentenced to hell (Luke 10:18; 2 Peter 2:4). He is the prince of fallen angels (demons) (Matthew 12:24).
3.2 Satan has sophisticated powers to delude, tempt, and accuse people (Genesis 3:1-5; John 8:44; Ephesians 2:2, 6:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:18, 3:5; Revelation 12:10). He is the adversary of God, the works of God, and the people of God (Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 4:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 5:8).
3.3 As a finite creature without divine powers or attributes, he has infinitely less power than almighty God (James 4:7; 1 John 4:4).
3.4 His final doom in the lake of fire is settled (2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 20:10).

4. History

4.1 Early Church (AD 100-400) - Those who desired to become members of the church were required to renounce the Devil and all his ways. Heretics were called "weeds of the devil" by Ignatious. Exorcisms were performed. Apparently, Satan-worship did not exist, although Christians believed that anyone who opposed God was serving the Devil.
4.2 Early Middle Ages (AD 400-1000) - The church of this period denounced Islam as "devilish." Folklore began to develop in society, characterizing Satan as an evil buffoon, and spreading tales of ghosts, monsters, trolls, elves, and leprechauns. The church began to develop a theology of demonism.
4.3 Medieval Scholastic Period (AD 1000-1490) - Scholars began to grapple with issues of Satan and free will.
4.4 Great Witch Hunts (1490s - 1840s) - Some began to believe that demons had sexual relations with humans. Crusades took place to "free" the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Satanism and witchcraft were confused. In the early Reformation period, an intense period of witch-hunting began, leading to high rates of conviction and execution. This grew through the Enlightenment period. It is estimated that sixty to one hundred thousand witches were executed.
4.5 Modern Period
4.5.1 Aliester Crowley (1875-1947) - A self-styled occultist, magician, drug addict, and sexual deviant. He taught the rejection of Christianity, the elevation of self, and the use of magic to reach one's goals.
4.5.2 Gerald Gardner - Developed a witchcraft system that borrowed ideas, types, ceremonies, incantations, and images from different religious and magical systems, such as the ceremonial focus of a circle containing an altar, the use of pentagrams and triangles, incense, etc.
4.5.3 Anton Szandor LaVey: The High Priest of Satanism - Beginning in the 1950s, LaVey met with like-minded individuals, hoping to throw off the chains of conformity and religious oppression, and embrace the only alternative: the freedom of fully realized human potential. The Satanic creed was composed by LaVey:
4.5.3.1 Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.
4.5.3.2 Satan represents vital existence rather than spiritual pipe dreams.
4.5.3.3 Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit.
4.5.3.4 Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates.
4.5.3.5 Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.
4.5.3.6 Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires.
4.5.3.7 Satan represents man as just another animal - sometimes better, more often worse than those who walk on all fours - who, because of his "divine spiritual and intellectual development," has become the most vicious animal of all.
4.5.3.8 Satan represents all the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.
4.5.3.9 Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years.(3)

5. Misconceptions About Satanism

5.1 Satanism and witchcraft - Satanism is not witchcraft. Contemporary witchcraft is generally pacifistic, nature-worshiping, often vegetarian, and is forbidden in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).
5.2 LaVey and the Church of Satan - They do not wish to form a structured Satanic system. Contrary to what many believe, they prohibit harming children, killing non-human animals except for food or self-defense, and making unwelcome sexual advances.
5.3 Verbal Content and Subliminal Messages - Studies have failed to demonstrate any correlation between subliminal messages and listeners' behaviors or beliefs.
5.4 Corporate Myths - No major American corporation has appeared in any public form espousing Satanism, or admitting support or financial contributions to any Satanic group. "The most enduring myth is that the president of Proctor and Gamble appeared on the Phil Donahue television program and admitted he was a member of the Church of Satan and supported the church financially. There is not a shred of evidence for this, and Christians who propagate such stories damage the credibility of legitimate warnings regarding false belief."(4)

6. Crime Among Satanists

6.1 Satanists do not publicly advocate criminal activity. However, Satanists advocate antinomianism (freedom from the law). LaVey said, "When walking in open territory, bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he does not stop, destroy him."
6.2 Drug dealing and drug use are common among teenage Satanists. Teenagers involved in Satanism have been known to commit suicide, or create suicide pacts. Some criminals use Satanic symbols or rituals in the commission of crimes.
6.3 Unsubstantiated stories of Satanic ritual abuse have become popular in the past decade. There is no proof of Satanic Ritual Abuse taking place on a wide scale.

7. Witnessing to Satanists

7.1 Remember that Satanism is not a traditional religion. Most Satanists are atheists. Focus on arguments for the existence of God, and challenge them to rationally define their own worldview.
7.2 If a Satanist acknowledges the existence of God, they may feel that they are beyond redemption. Remind them of the reality of Christ's sacrifice.
7.3 Remember that among most self-taught teenage Satanists, Satanism is more a symptom of problems than a religious rejection of belief. Most teenage Satanists use drugs and need substance abuse intervention.
7.4 Satanists are interested in self-centeredness, self-indulgence, and self-gratification. Explain that Christianity is the only path to self-fulfillment (Matthew 6:33; 16:26).
7.5 Challenge their understanding of the Bible. Clarify for them what the Bible really teaches.
7.6 Don't take offense at Satanists' mockery and rejection of your beliefs.
Footnotes

1Bob Passantino and Gretchan Passantino, When the Devil Dares Your Kids (Ann Arbor, Mich: Servant Books, 1991) 34.

2Quoted by Blance Barton, The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton LaVey (Los Angeles: Feral House, 1990) 205.

3Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books, 1969) 25.

4 Bob Passantino and Gretchen Passantino, Satanism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 50.

The Significance of the Insignificant

  • this past Thursday, a new lieutenant-governor was appointed in Ontario
  • in this vice-regal post, the incumbent is supposed to act as the Queen's representative to this province, acting on his or her behalf
  • I've enjoyed some of the colorful characters who have occupied this post
  • from Lincoln Alexander to Hal Jackman, and now Hilary Weston, they have been interesting

  • Hilary Weston is by all accounts an outstanding choice
  • she has poise, dignity, and beauty
  • she has enjoyed a life of privilege, philanthropy, and private enterprise

  • I don't know how Prime Minister Chretien chose Hilary Weston, but I do know that his methods of choosing are a bit different from God's
  • you see, when Prime Minister Chretien goes about choosing the Queen's vice-regal representative, he looks for someone with poise and dignity and grace
  • but when God goes looking to unwrap his most mysterious plan, the most important plan that has ever unfolded in the history of the world, God chose the most unlikely and unusual plot and cast of characters possible
  • when God the Son came to the earth, he did it in somewhat of an unusual way

  • what I want to do this morning is to look at a few things that happened in the Christmas story that were as regal and fitting as they should be
  • and I want to do this to remind us that the Christmas story is a heavenly drama being played out in a most unusual way
  • but then I want to look at the cast and setting of this drama, and point out that when God accomplishes his heavenly purpose, he accomplishes it very often using very ordinary people in very ordinary places

  • so look with me at some parts of the divine drama that are unusual or other-worldly
  • FIRST HAS TO BE THE ANGELS
  • creation has no more mysterious and exalted beings than angels, who represent the testimony of the heavens to what is occurring
  • the Scriptures tell us in Hebrews 12:22 that when we come to worship, we come into the presence of "innumerable angels"
  • so there is an amazingly large number of angels - from a human standpoint, and innumerable assembly of angelic beings praising God

  • now, it's not everyday that one sees an angel
  • whenever an angel appears in Scripture, it's always for a very unusual reason
  • in Luke 1 and 2, there are three angel appearances
  • the angels appear to Zechariah to announce the coming birth of John the Baptist
  • the angels appear to Mary to announce that she will give birth to Jesus
  • and the angels appear to a group of shepherds in the field, announcing the birth of Jesus Christ
  • it's only fitting that angels should be present at such an auspicious occasion

  • the angels remind us that what we're seeing is a very unusual occurrence, because it's not everyday that one sees an angel

  • there's another unusual or other-worldly occurrence
  • AND THEN THERE'S THE VIRGIN BIRTH
  • I don't have to tell you that this has been one of the most ridiculed teachings of Scripture
  • but the Bible clearly asserts that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and without a human father
  • and once again, it's not just any day that a virgin birth takes place

  • the virgin birth reminds us that salvation must ultimately come from the Lord
  • it reminds us that God brought about the birth of Jesus by his own power, not through mere human effort
  • it also made possible the uniting of full deity and full humanity in one person
  • in no better way could the deity of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God take on humanity that to be born of a woman, yet not by a human Father but by the power of the Holy Spirit

  • I think we all agree that an event as unusual as the coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is fitting of angelic announcements and a miraculous birth
  • but I think we miss a lot of the Christmas story when we dress it up too much
  • I think we've added a bit too much glitz in part of the story
  • this morning my premise is that as unusual and miraculous as the birth of Jesus Christ was, it took place among the most ordinary people and in the most ordinary places
  • I would like to look at part of the Christmas story in Luke 2 and draw a few observations for us this morning
  • because I believe that the way God worked in this passage is indicative of the way that he often works today

  • the first observation is this
  • WHEN GOD CHOOSES TO WORK IN MIRACULOUS WAYS, HE OFTEN CHOOSES THE MOST ORDINARY PEOPLE
  • in the ancient world, if anyone had asked if there was a more important person that Caesar, the emperor and ruler of the vast Roman empire, the answer surely would have been no
  • Caesar Augustus was the first, and according to many, the greatest Roman emperor ever to rule over the empire
  • under his rule, he expanded the Roman empire as far west as the Atlantic ocean, as far east as the Euphrates, as far north as the Rhine, and as far south as the Sahara desert
  • Caesar also reigned in a period of great peace, and he ushered in the golden age of Roman literature and architecture
  • in 27 BC, the Roman senate met and conferred on Caesar the title "Augustus," which means "exalted"
  • but it wasn't to Caesar that the angels appeared

  • in the ancient world, if anyone had asked if there were more a more religious people than the Pharisees, the answer surely would have been no
  • the scribes and Pharisees were world record holders of righteousness
  • they had quit their jobs to do righteousness full time
  • they were people who were addicted to righteousness
  • not only did they obey the Scriptures, they made up several hundred laws to border their behavior so that they would not get out of the fence of righteousness
  • the name "Pharisees" literally means, "Separated Ones"
  • there were about 6,000 of them, spread throughout all of Palestine
  • they were teachers in the synagogues, religious examples in the eyes of the people, and self-appointed guardians of the law and its observance
  • they considered the interpretations and regulations handed down by tradition to be virtually as authoritative as the Scripture
  • but it wasn't to the Pharisees that the angels appeared

  • in the ancient world, if anyone had asked if there were more a more ordinary group of people than shepherds, the answer surely would have been no
  • there are no more "normal Joes" in ancient culture than shepherds
  • they represent the lowly and the humble of society
  • some scholars teach that shepherds were outcasts in that society
  • their work not only made them ceremoniously unclean, but it kept them away from the temple for weeks at a time so that they could not be made clean
  • but God did not send the angels to Judea or Syria, or to other places of honor and significance
  • he sent the angels to a group of lowly shepherds who were staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night

  • God does not call the rich and mighty; he calls the poor and the lonely
  • (Luke 1:51) He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
  • (Luke 1:52) He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
  • (Luke 1:53) He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

  • when God chose a leader to take his people out of Egypt, he didn't choose an eloquent orator but a stumbling stutterer
  • when God chose a woman to help the spies in Jericho, he didn't choose a respectable pillar of the community but an immoral prostitute
  • when God chose someone to confront Balaam, he didn't choose a prophet but he chose a talking donkey
  • when God chose a woman to mother Jesus, he didn't choose a sinless saint but an unknown teenager
  • when God chose a rock upon which to build his church, he didn't choose a stalwart leader but an impetuous loudmouth
  • when God chooses to work today, he does not choose the intelligentsia, or the power brokers, or the rich
  • but he chooses people like Cecille Bernardo and Dorothy Howard and Dave Russell
  • he chooses people like you and me

  • but the second observation is this
  • WHEN GOD CHOOSES TO WORK IN MIRACULOUS WAYS, HE OFTEN CHOOSES THE MOST INSIGNIFICANT PLACES
  • we all know that the birth of Jesus took place in the most humble of circumstances, for the child is born in either a stable or a cave
  • they are in this strange birthing room, because "there was no room for them in the inn"
  • since there is no vacancy in such a locale, the couple finds shelter where they can
  • and so Jesus enters the world in as mundane a way as possible
  • his first hours of human existence are spent in a manger
  • the agent of God lives without pretense

  • in Luke 1, the angel announced that Mary's child would be a king of an everlasting kingdom
  • Zechariah noted that the Coming One would be like the rising sun, who provides light to guide our feet on the way of peace
  • yet the birth of the Christ child is so simple and is located in as average a village as one can have
  • this is no normal setting for the birth of a king
  • when his parents wrap Jesus in clothes to keep his limbs straight and lay him in the manger, the humble emptying of Jesus has begun

  • you see, the cast of characters and location in this drama show the significance of the insignificant
  • the announcement of Christ's arrival to everyday folk show God's commitment to the mass of humanity
  • God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise

  • what are some lessons in this?
  • LESSON NUMBER ONE: IMPORTANCE IS A FUNCTION OF ONE'S ROLE IN GOD'S WORK
  • in other words, importance is not a matter of one's environment or the supposed status that things bring, and importance does not come from power
  • Jesus is important not because of the setting of his birth, but because of who he is before God
  • for one moment, the center of God's activity resides in an animal trough
  • the dignity of the event comes from the person lying at the center

  • the lesson for us is clear
  • we might be impressed by the powerful or the rich or the attractive
  • but God isn't
  • when God works, he doesn't concern himself with the surroundings or the accoutrements
  • God doesn't go out like our prime minister and search for the important to take on important tasks
  • God attaches importance to building his kingdom
  • and if you're building God's kingdom, you're important
  • the president of your company, if he's not building God's kingdom - he's not important
  • the prime minister of the country, if he's not building God's kingdom - he's not important
  • but you, if you're building his kingdom, you're important

  • even in God's kingdom, you're probably not going to be a Billy Graham or a Chuck Swindoll or a Max Lucado
  • but you're you, and you're important to God

  • LESSON NUMBER TWO: SOMETIMES GOD'S WORK GOES ON QUIETLY IN HIDDEN LOCALES
  • God's work does not always take place where we would expect
  • sometimes God's work goes on quietly in the most unexpected of places

  • as a child, I bought a brass key ring that says, "Throne Room - Buckingham Palace"
  • I still have it
  • I remember fantasizing about what it would be like if that key ring actually did have a key to the throne room of Buckingham Palace
  • whenever I traveled to London, every time, I would stand outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, wondering what it is really like behind those walls

  • this past summer, I paid my sixteen pounds and gained access to Buckingham Palace
  • and I walked through the state rooms
  • all of a sudden I entered one room and realized that I was in the throne room of Buckingham Palace, standing a few feet away from the throne of Queen Elizabeth
  • nearby where the thrones of previous monarchs such as Queen Victoria

  • I'm impressed by that
  • but you know, God doesn't seem to be
  • because God doesn't usually choose throne rooms in which to act
  • when God works, it isn't usually a noisy affair
  • it isn't filled with pomp and circumstance
  • often, when God works, he works quietly and in hidden locales

  • for whatever reason, you and I are in a small church
  • it's easy to feel that God works in the megachurch or the cathedral
  • but the fact of the matter is, God often works quietly in a small place like this
  • with little fanfare and little recognition
  • it's like the Scriptures say in Zechariah, "Who despises the day of small things?"
  • not God

  • there's one final lesson for us here
  • AMONG ALL THE THINGS THE WORLD CALLS SIGNIFICANT, IT'S EASY TO LOSE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PERSON - JESUS CHRIST
  • God works in the insignificant, and sometimes that's easy to miss

  • a well-known department store began to sell a doll in the form of the baby Jesus
  • it was advertised as being unbreakable, washable, and cuddly
  • it was packaged in straw with a satin crib and plastic surroundings, and appropriate biblical texts added here and there to make the scene complete
  • but it didn't sell
  • the manager of one of the department stores panicked
  • he carried out a last-ditch promotion to get rid of those dolls
  • so he put up a huge sign outside his store that read:
  • JESUS CHRIST-
  • MARKED DOWN 50%
  • GET HIM WHILE YOU CAN

  • you know, the tinsel and tarnish has just about done this
  • it's tried to mark Jesus down and make him insignificant
  • and it's so easy to miss him
  • but Jesus is here this morning
  • he perhaps is not what you expected
  • he uses the insignificant things of the world and comes in the most unexpected places
  • the son of God leaves his home, he's born a homeless person in a temporary shelter, he identifies with the homeless all throughout his ministry, he's buried in a borrowed grave, and, yet, through his death and resurrection, he enables all wandering people to recapture a sense of home in this life, recapture a sense of belonging, a sense of security, a sense of optimism and, beyond that, he promises a permanent home in heaven forever.
  • if you know this Christ and you're sure of it, don't let this Christmas time pass without worshipping God for the gift of his son that makes home possible wherever you are
  • make sure you worship God in a profoundly personal and authentic way for making you significant

  • and for the rest of you who have never known this Jesus, why don't you get to know him this morning?
  • why don't you mark this morning as the morning that you came became significant in Christ?

The New Church (The General Church of the New Jerusalem)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. (Colossians 2:8-9)

1. Key Facts

1.1 Membership
1.1.1 Thirty thousand members and adherents in about twelve countries.
1.1.2 Three churches are located in Canada in Etobicoke, Ontario (The Olivet Church on Burnhamthorpe); Kitchener, Ontario; and Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
1.1.3 Cult membership appears to be declining, particularly in England and in the Scandinavian nations.
1.2 Although The New Church has a small membership, it wields considerable influence in intellectual church circles.
1.3 The New Church is unique in that it was founded by one of the most gifted and respected intellectuals of any age, Emanuel Swedenborg.

2. Emanuel Swedenborg

2.1 Early Life & Career
2.1.1 Born in Stockholm, Sweden, on the 29th of January, 1688. The son of a clergyman and professor of theology, Swedenborg grew up in a household filled with moral, political, intellectual and philosophical dialogue.
2.1.2 After his formal education at Uppsala University, at the age of twenty-two, Swedenborg began to travel. While in England and Holland he immersed himself in studying many subjects, including: physics, astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, physiology, economics, metallurgy, mineralogy, geology, chemistry, watch-making, bookbinding, and lens grinding.
2.1.3 Swedenborg produced "a new stove, a magazine air gun, methods of salt manufacture...and drew plans for a flying machine and the construction of docks." He also worked on a "sort of a ship in which a man can go below the surface of the sea and do great damage to the fleet of an enemy."
2.1.4 In 1716, the King of Sweden appointed him Extraordinary Assessor in the Royal College of Mines. Then, in 1719, he took a seat in the House of Nobles (a part of the Swedish legislature), in which he served the Swedish government for some fifty years. Also, the King of Sweden asked Swedenborg to serve as his engineering advisor.
2.1.5 Swedenborg published many books on a vast number of subjects, including metallurgy and biology. Swedenborg is generally credited with being the first to accurately understand the significance of the cerebral cortex and the respiratory movement of the brain tissues.
2.1.6 His contributions to his homeland, especially in the areas of high finance and mining, led to his remains being moved by the Swedish navy six years after his death from a London church to a cathedral in Uppsala.
2.2 Religious Experiences
2.2.1 Between 1743 and 1749, Swedenborg claimed to have experienced heavenly visions and periods of great temptation. Not knowing what to make of these odd experiences, he revealed them nowhere but in his personal journals. He claims to have talked and argued theological issues with Luther, Calvin, St. Augustine, and the apostle Paul.
2.2.2 In 1745, Swedenborg maintained that he received a divine summons to become "both a seer and a revelator of the things of the spiritual world, and simultaneously of the spiritual truth and doctrine which underlies the literal and symbolic sense of the sacred Scriptures.
2.2.3 At first, Swedenborg published his books anonymously, and they largely went unnoticed.
2.2.4 His writings became more accepted after an unusual occurrence in July 1759:

Swedenborg was in Gothenburg, dining with friends at the home of a wealthy local merchant. During the dinner, he suddenly became pale and distraught-looking and withdrew from the table. When asked what was the matter, he replied that he had just had news that a horrible fire had broken out in Stockholm (which was 300 miles from Gothenburg), not far from his own home. Then, at around eight o'clock that same evening, he just as suddenly became relieved, explaining that the fire had been extinguished three houses down from his own home. is words and behavior of that evening became the talk of the town just a few days later, when a messenger arrived from Stockholm with news about the fire Swedenborg had described. Upon questioning, it was discovered that his description of the event had perfectly matched, in much detail, what had actually happened that summer evening. Soon afterward, the first surge of interest in his theological Writings began, spurred on not only by the strange story of his uncanny knowledge of the Stockholm fire, but also by several other episodes which demonstrated his ability to communicate with people in the spiritual world.

2.2.5 From then until his death, Swedenborg studied the Bible and wrote numerous theological works which have become the foundation for The New Church. His visits to the other world reportedly continued in this time.

3. Theological Beliefs

New Church Christianity
The Bible The Old and New Testaments provide guidance for our spiritual growth in the form of commandments and parables. The spiritual meaning of these teachings is unlocked in the new revelation given to The New Church through the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. These writings together serve as a complete and meaningful authority for The New Church and any individual who wants to understand the Lord's Word. The Bible is the very Word of God; that the sixty-six books comprising the Old and New Testaments are inspired by the Spirit of God and are therefore wholly without error as originally given by God; and that it is our final authority, our only and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.
The Trinity There is only one God, and that God is the Lord. The New Church teaches that God Himself came down to earth, and His body was called "the Son," and His everlasting soul, "the Father," and His operation on people, "the Holy Spirit." Just as we have a soul, a body, and an effect on people, so the Lord has three attributes which are called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God self-exists in three distinct Persons - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom is to be honored and worshipped.
Salvation People of all faiths are welcomed into heaven if they have lived according to what they sincerely believe to be the Lord's will. Those who use their freedom to reject the Lord's will choose eternal life in hell. Salvation is the free gift of God, neither deserved nor obtained by any work of man, but received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation is entirely by the sovereign grace of God through the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ.
Satan Devils are not fallen angels, but rather disobedient humans. Satan is not an individual, but a collection of people choosing to lust, hurt and hate Satan was created by God as an angel, but he rebelled against God and now exists as an evil person, the originator of sin, and the archenemy of God and man. His final doom and judgment by God are sure.
Marriage True marriage love continues to eternity in heaven. There are no marriages or weddings in heaven.
The Second Coming The second coming is primarily a spiritual event. We needn't be looking for dramatic changes of government or climate, because the Lord's kingdom is not a civil authority or a geographical location. His kingdom is concerned with the government of the human mind - with a life according to divine laws. The signs that He has come again should be the changes in our own hearts. Jesus Christ will personally, gloriously, and visibly return to earth.
The Afterlife In the world of spirits we are allowed to choose either heaven or hell, but the choice we make will be determined by what we have become here on earth. If we have consistently chosen evil on earth, we will continue to choose it in the other world. If we have tried to live good lives here, then that choice will be confirmed in the other world and we will be led to heaven, where we will become angels. On the day of judgment, the bodies of both the righteous and unrighteous will be raised. The righteous will eternally exist in a state of joy with the Lord; the unrighteous will eternally and consciously endure punishment.

4. Summary

"The great tragedy of EmanuelSwedenborg is that he would not submit himself and his great mind to the discipline of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. Because of this, and because of his deliberated preoccupation with spiritism and the occult, in direct disobedience to the express teachings of God, he was despoiled, even as Paul had warned. He was deceived by dreams and visions and the machinations of him whom the Scriptures describe as the 'spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience' (Ephesians 2:2b)."

Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults

When God Comes Calling (Luke 1:26-38)

  • he was an impressive man
  • in his fifties, he was the vice-president of a multinational corporation
  • he had a nice family, and was by all accounts a success in his career and in his life
  • he was raised in a small town in the Midwest, where he was active in sports, a good student, and a choirboy
  • he went on to college where he was also active in a number of clubs and programs
  • then came his first big job, marriage, a child, traveling abroad, promotions, a new home, another child, and finally promotion to vice-president
  • but this man, by all accounts successful, had a problem
  • listen to his problem, in his own words:
  • "The problem is that my life is full of good things - a nice house, a nice car, a good job, a busy life...
  • "As I began to think about what really matters most to me, I suddenly realized that over these past years, that feeling, that sense of purpose, has somehow gotten lost. I've been lulled by a sense of security. I haven't made a difference. I've basically been watching life go by through the hedges of my country club."

  • here was a man who was a success, but when you look at the bottom line of his life, he was not making a significant contribution to God, to others, or to the world
  • although he had success outwardly, he identified that he was missing out on something significant in his life
  • his life was not making a difference

  • she was a young girl, perhaps as young as twelve years old
  • she lived in an obscure village in a humble, agrarian area
  • although she was only a young teenager, possibly as young as twelve years old, she was pregnant out of wedlock
  • a scandalous situation for a young, unmarried teenager to be in
  • compared to the rich executive, she had little wealth or position, no security, but she did have the stigma of society's disapproval
  • yet she had something far greater
  • listen to what she said:
  • (Luke 1:46) "My soul glorifies the Lord
  • (Luke 1:47) and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
  • (Luke 1:48) for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed,
  • (Luke 1:49) for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name."

  • this young, peasant girl's name was Mary
  • I'd like to ask you to open your Bibles to Luke 1
  • I like to learn from people
  • when I see someone admirable, I try to learn from their example
  • and when I see someone make mistakes, I like to learn from how that person went wrong
  • what I'd like to do this morning is to look at Mary, Jesus' mother
  • I believe that Mary reflects the person whom God unexpectedly chooses to use
  • I think that the character of Mary is worthy of study
  • because although the events that take place in her life are unique, her attitudes are held up in this passage as exemplary and worthy of praise
  • so let's look at Mary and try to learn from her
  • my goal is, that the end of the sermon, each of us will commit to emulating Mary's example

  • the first lesson is that
  • GOD USES US IN SPITE OF OUR LACK OF CREDENTIALS
  • as we look at Mary, the first thing we have to notice is her lack of outstanding credentials
  • Mary really has nothing outstanding to offer God
  • she has no special skills or merit or value
  • in other words, God doesn't choose Mary because of her merit, God chooses Mary because of his grace

  • now before you shoot me on this, let me explain
  • over the years, Mary has become venerated as the mother of God
  • some teach that you can actually pray to Mary
  • some even teach that Mary was free from sin, but Scripture nowhere teaches this
  • if you strip away all the centuries of tradition and look at the Mary that Scripture presents, really she had no outstanding credentials to offer God

  • she was from an obscure village in an out-of-the way place
  • (Luke 1:26) In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,
  • Mary is found north of the capital city, Jerusalem, in an obscure village
  • Galilee was not a respected region, was hardly the expected locale for one sent from God
  • if we were to prepare for the coming of the King of Kings, we probably wouldn't have picked such an obscure location to find a mother

  • she wasn't that old
  • (Luke 1:27) to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
  • Luke identifies her as being a virgin, engaged to Joseph
  • at that time, a Jewish betrothal involved two steps: the formal engagement, which included a contract and exchange of a bridal price, and then a year later, a wedding
  • to break off an betrothal would actually be tantamount to a divorce
  • but yet in this betrothal period, no sexual activity took place, even though you were considered husband and wife

  • now, Mary's age is not given, but in this culture it could be as young as twelve
  • I'm careful about who baby-sits our daughter Christina, and I would have to think long and hard before I ever let a twelve-year old baby-sit my little girl
  • but here God entrusts the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to a young teenager in a remote area in a hostile world

  • we read that Mary was a virgin, that she had remained sexually pure, but other than that, there is nothing special about her
  • she had no outstanding credentials on her resume to offer God
  • verse 28 talks about Mary being "highly favored," but this refers to her receiving God's grace on the basis of his sovereign action, but because she had earned God's favor

  • when I was a kid in school, we would play in the playground
  • if we wanted to play a sport, two captains would be picked
  • these captains would look over the rest of us, and then they would take turns picking their team, based on strength, agility, and skill
  • they picked the strongest and the best first
  • and those of us who were picked last sure knew our place in the scheme of things

  • there's a myth that God picks the brightest and the best
  • but he doesn't - he picks those with little on their resumes
  • the fact of the matter is that we too have few credentials to offer God
  • but that's good, because we're just the sort of people God uses
  • out of the way, young perhaps, but God can use us

  • Paul the apostle tells us just the sort of person God chooses
  • (1 Corinthians 1:26) Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
  • (1 Corinthians 1:27) But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
  • (1 Corinthians 1:28) He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are,
  • (1 Corinthians 1:29) so that no one may boast before him.

  • God has a history of choosing under-qualified people, so that when the job gets done they can't take credit for it
  • God chooses usual people to do unusual things so that everyone knows that when things take place, it's not the usual person who's responsible, it's our unusual God
  • you don't need the looks of a model, or the intelligence to belong to Mensa
  • you don't need the eloquence of an orator or the talent to win contest
  • the fact of the matter is that we have little to offer God
  • even if you are incredibly skilled or talented, we have little to offer God
  • but God uses us anyway

  • the thing I learn from Mary is this next lesson:
  • ABOUT THE ONLY THING WE CAN OFFER GOD IS OUR AVAILABILITY AND WILLINGNESS
  • these were the only things that Mary could offer God
  • Mary reflects the proper response to God, with no other credentials that availability and a responsive heart
  • she is the Lord's servant, and so are we if we trust him
  • God's servants have the right attitude and perspective to accomplish great things for God if they say:
  • "Use me as you will. I will not refrain from serving because I do not feel qualified or usable."
  • God's servants say, "I'm available. Use me as you will"

  • imagine being responsible to hire someone for an important task
  • you receive resumes and arrange for interviews
  • you notice that all the resumes list the education, experience, and qualifications of every candidate
  • except for one
  • in this one resume, you notice that under "education" it says: none
  • under "experience" it says: none
  • but the resume does say one thing: I'm willing and available

  • you and I wouldn't hire this person
  • but God would
  • in reality all we can offer God is our availability and our willingness
  • because nothing else we have is of value to him
  • God doesn't need your skills, God doesn't need your ability
  • but he's willing to take someone who's fully available

  • you know, after this stewardship program, someone was mentioning to me that she was led to think about tithing her time
  • she pointed out to me that we usually think of giving God money, but what about tithing our time?
  • what if we thought of serving God with a tenth of our time?
  • personally, I'd be happy if we all served God in his body 1% of our time
  • 1% of our time is 100 minutes a week
  • do you know how different our church would be if everyone made themselves available to serve God for 100 minutes a week?
  • Mary made herself available to serve God in a way that many of us don't

  • Mary also teaches us that
  • SERVING GOD COSTS US SOMETHING
  • Mary's response in verse 38 shows us her character:
  • (Luke 1:38) "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
  • what Mary was agreeing to was no simple matter
  • she was being asked to bear a child as a virgin without being married
  • in standing up for God and his power, she probably was the object of much doubt and ridicule
  • nobody would believe her story about the angel and the virgin birth
  • but Mary knows she is God's servant, and so she let God work through her as He willed
  • God could place her in whatever difficult circumstance he desired, for she knew that God was with her

  • if you've heard of Bill Hybels, you know him as a famous pastor of a megachurch near Chicago
  • what you don't know is what he had to give up to serve God
  • Bill's family operated a wholesale produce company in Michigan
  • all his life, his father had prepared him to assume a position of leadership in the company
  • and with it came a lot of frills and toys
  • when he graduated from college, he began work in his father's business and made a ton of money
  • and then came a leading from the Holy Spirit
  • the director of a Christian camp asked him, "What are you doing with your life that will last forever?"
  • the question haunted Hybels
  • he realized that without the planes and boats and fast cars, he had little to give his life meaning
  • finally, he decided that he would serve God more directly on the front lines of the spiritual battle

  • and so he approached his father and told him of his decision
  • his father said, "Fine, Bill. Now turn in your credit cards, and your keys to the plane, the boat, and the cars. And don't entertain any ideas of coming back."
  • Hybels got a job in the shipping department of a Christian organization, standing between two middle-aged women, stuffing little plastic awards in cellophane wrappers
  • and then he took a job teaching a Bible study for a group of teenagers
  • it was a full-time job for part-time pay
  • the youth group grew from about fifty kids to over one thousand in three years
  • just about then, God really blessed him: he got married and he received a pay raise

  • with a successful ministry, decent pay, and a sense of stability, what more could he want?
  • then came a new calling from the Holy Spirit to start a new church
  • but to start a church, he had to trade the known for the unknown
  • he writes:
  • "I was twenty-three; most of us who wanted to start the church didn't know anybody over thirty. We had no money, experience, people, facility, elders, location, or demographic studies...you get the idea. All we did have was willingness and availability, and I wasn't too sure how they would stack up against the obvious possibility of failure."
  • and so he quit his job
  • he bought a cracker box house and furnished it with garage sale giveaways
  • in order to survive financially, they took in boarders, sold possessions, and his wife taught the flute
  • they sometimes never knew where the next meal or mortgage payment was coming from

  • and things got worse
  • early in the life of the church, one of the cofounders of the church left and was divorced within a year
  • with his departure, others in the church core departed
  • his father died, his wife miscarried, and his marriage began to disintegrate
  • it was then that Hybels spent an entire night face down on the living room floor pleading for forgiveness, for one more chance
  • he told God he would do it his way

  • for God to use Bill Hybels meant that he had to give up the keys to the corporate jet, to the fast cars
  • he had to lose status and security and wealth and income and certainty
  • and finally his spirit had to be broken
  • you see, serving God always costs something

  • I don't know what it's going to cost you
  • it might be your reputation, or income, or security
  • but Mary was willing to pay the price
  • are you?

  • one final lesson:
  • MARY TRUSTED GOD TO OVERCOME HER LIMITATIONS
  • Mary's response is one of trust
  • God simply promises to use her and be with her in the journey, and she responds by being willing to go on the ride
  • with God's grace behind her, Mary knows that she can do what God asks

  • Mary didn't come with an inferiority complex, because there was no need
  • she didn't argue with God as Moses did, telling him that she was under-qualified
  • God already knew that
  • what she did was realize that God would help her overcome whatever limitations she brought to the effort
  • Mary is a portrait of going wherever God leads, knowing that he will supply whatever is lacking
  • she had an attitude that trusted God for enablement and direction

  • think again of that executive I mentioned at the beginning
  • he had wealth, he had prestige and influence, he had everything a person could ask for, and yet he had nothing
  • he was a picture of success as the world defines it
  • and yet he had a terrible emptiness inside his soul

  • now think of Mary
  • a pregnant, unmarried teenager
  • she had nothing to offer God except her willingness and availability
  • and God used her
  • now, God isn't going to come to any of us with the same job that he gave Mary
  • but God is calling all of us to his service
  • Ephesians 4:7-16 teach that God has called all believers to minister within the body of Christ
  • God's call to all of us is for a proper response to this call
  • Mary's response was this:
  • (Luke 1:38) "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."
  • what's your response?
  • are you filled with excuses?
  • are you unavailable for God to use you?
  • are you unwilling to sacrifice for God?
  • are you unwilling to let God enable you and lead you, to make up for what you're lacking?

  • Father,
  • no angel is appearing to us this morning
  • Gabriel isn't commissioning us for some great task
  • but you are calling us to serve you in some way that's unique
  • many of us are like that executive, outwardly successful but inwardly empty
  • but most of us know the calling or burden you have placed on us to serve you
  • like Mary, we have nothing to offer you except our availability and willingness
  • but like Mary, we come to you and accept your assignment
  • we announce today that we're available
  • we announce today that we're willing to sacrifice
  • we announce today that we're willing to trust you to overcome our limitations

Jehovah's Witnesses

1. Key Facts

1.1 Membership - Total world membership reached 4.9 million in 1994. Members are called "publishers." There are probably an equal number of adherents.
1.2 Growth - Growth has been most dramatic in Central and South America, Africa, and the Pacific Rim. Their statistics show that it takes an average number of 3,500 hours of "preaching work" (evangelism) for every person baptized, including children of Witnesses.
1.3 Literature - Witnesses distribute two magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!, as well as Bibles and other literature. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is central to the movement.
1.4 Other Groups - There are at least ten religious groups that could be considered splinter groups. These groups reject the doctrine of the Trinity as well as other essentials of biblical Christianity.

2. History

2.1 "Pastor" Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916)
2.1.1 Background - C.T. Russell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended Presbyterian and Congregational churches as a child. By the time he was sixteen years old, he became a skeptic, primarily because he was unable to accept the doctrine of hell.
2.1.2 Adventist Associations
2.1.2.1 In 1869, Russell attended an Adventist lecture on hell, in which he was told there is no eternal punishment. His faith in the Bible was restored. Soon after, he founded a Bible study group and came to be known as "pastor."
2.1.2.2 Russell became associated with another Adventist, Nelson Barbour, who convinced him that Christ's second coming was a visible and spiritual presence which had already begun in 1874. The two men wrote a book, but in early 1879 they parted over doctrinal differences, including Barbour's failed prophecy that the church would go to heaven in April 1878. From then on, Russell distanced himself from the Adventists.
2.1.3 The Watch Tower - In 1879, Russell launched his own work with the publication of the magazine, Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. The magazine taught that Christ was already present and had been since 1874, and that Christ's presence would climax in 1914 with God's judgment on all human nations and the establishment of God's kingdom. In the 1880's, Russell established the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (now the international headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses), in which he held ninety-nine percent of the shares.
2.1.4 Death - Russell died in 1916, believing that the "Gentile times" had ended in 1914 and that World War I was Armageddon.
2.2 "Judge" Joseph F. Rutherford (1869-1942) - After Russell's death, various factions struggled for control of the Society. Rutherford was elected the second president of the Society, and immediately forced out several prominent leaders, who formed splinter sects. In 1931, Rutherford adopted the name "Jehovah's Witnesses". They also abandoned Russell's belief that Christ's presence began in 1874, and that World War I was Armageddon. Instead they taught that Christ's presence began in 1914.
2.3 Nathan Knorr (1905-77)
2.3.1 Knorr succeeded Rutherford as president in 1942. He placed control of the Society into the hands of a board known as the Governing Body, and the Society began publishing its books anonymously (instead of with Russell's or Rutherford's names). He also led the Society to publish more sophisticated Bible study tools, including their own translation of the Bible, the New World Translation. Witnesses were also trained to speak conversationally about the Bible with prospective converts.
2.3.2 In the 1960's, Watchtower publications began presenting the theory that Armageddon might take place in 1975. Many Witnesses sold their homes and quit their jobs to devote themselves to full-time witnessing. During 1975 the Society backed away from the date, leaving many disillusioned.
2.4 Frederick W. Franz (1893-1992) - Franz replaced Knorr in 1977. Franz was more knowledgeable in biblical studies and theology than his predecessors, and under his leadership the Witnesses learned to express their beliefs in more biblical and evangelical-sounding language. In 1980, the Society forced out several prominent leaders for alleged disloyalty to the organization. One of these leaders was Franz's nephew, Ray Franz, also a member of the governing body. He was "disfellowshipped" for eating a meal with an ex-Witness (who happened to be his employer and landlord). Frederick Franz died in 1992, and was replaced by Milton G. Henschel.

3. Practices of Jehovah's Witnesses

3.1 Jehovah's Witnesses are prohibited from participating in almost every holiday and celebration, including birthdays, Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, New Year's Day, Mother's Day, etc.
3.2 Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden to participate in political affairs; they may not vote, lobby, hold office, salute, or display any government's flag. They are also forbidden to participate in a war, even as non-combatants.

4. Theological Beliefs

Jehovah's Witness Belief Christian Belief
Authority There is only one true religious organization (administered by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society). Believers must submit to this one true organization. The only reliable translation is the New World Translation. Although there is only "one faith," there is not only one true religious organization. The church shows itself in different forms, and there is genuine disagreement over nonessential or secondary points of theology. Believers are not to meekly submit to whatever leaders tell them (Acts 17:11). No human leader is beyond question.
Trinity and the Deity of Christ There is no Trinity; Jehovah, the Almighty God, is a solitary person.

Jesus is not Almighty God. Before he became a man, he preexisted in heaven as the first and only direct creation by God. He was empowered by Jehovah to produce the rest of creation, and resumed his divine position after his death and resurrection with the added privilege of eventually ruling over all creation under Jehovah's authority.

The "holy spirit" is an impersonal energy or active force that God uses.

The Bible teaches the Trinity. Over sixty times in the New Testament, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated together in creation, salvation, the Christian life, and the future judgment.

Jesus is Almighty God, and possesses the essential characteristics of God. He has existed eternally. Jesus is fully God.

The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, but is a divine person. The Holy Spirit is God.

Death, the Soul and Hell Death ends personal existence. There is no immaterial personal soul or spirit, and there is no afterlife or eternal conscious punishment for the wicked. The Bible consistently teaches that there is a soul or spirit, and that there is an afterlife. There is an eternal punishment for the wicked.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ Jesus Christ was raised as a spirit creature. His human body was not raised from the dead, but was instead dissolved into gases or otherwise annihilated. The resurrection was physical in nature. Jesus is still a man. The body that was killed was the body that was raised.
Salvation There are two classes of Christians: the "anointed" who will go to heaven as spirit sons of God, and the "great crowd," who will be resurrected on earth and given opportunity to live on earth forever. This great crowd will include all pre-Christian believers and most of those now living. Salvation requires faith in Christ plus hard work. Only 144,000 are "born again." All Christians have the same status and future. All Christians will live on the new earth. Christians, before being raised from the dead to everlasting life on the new earth, will wait with Christ in heaven for their final salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, resulting in good works.
Christ's Return Christ is invisibly present, and has been since 1914.. He will never actually return to the earth. His invisible presence is preparing for his invisible "revelation" in the events of Armageddon and the beginning of the Millennium. Christ will return personally, visibly, and bodily to the earth. Christ's kingdom rule over the earth was inaugurated at his resurrection and ascension.

5. Tips on Witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses

  • As with other groups, recognize that they are people who are loved by God and sinners just as we are. They need the Gospel. Be prepared to share it instead of just sending them away.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses are required to read an average of sixty pages of Watchtower literature per week, compared to an average of four pages of the Bible per week. They are discouraged from reading non-Witness religious literature, especially anything written by ex-Witnesses ("apostates") or persons critical of their beliefs ("opposers"). They are taught to value unity and organizational loyalty.
  • Politely challenge their stereotypes of non-Witnesses. They are taught that non-Witnesses do not know the Bible and are not well-taught as they are. They are also taught to expect hostility and disrespect. Respectfully agree with the biblical insights they do have, but show your knowledge of the Scriptures.
  • Instead of making statements, ask questions to challenge their beliefs. Don't assume they know the Bible. They come prepared to give a prepared speech and know their own proof texts, but not necessarily the Bible as a whole.
  • Tactfully show that the Watchtower has lied to them and is guilty of false prophecy.
  • As with all groups, do research before engaging with them! For instance, help is available from Christian bookstores and organizations.. Don't get in over your head. If you don't know an answer, admit it, and offer to meet with them again with the answer. Then do so.
  • Give them time to go home and think about what you said. They might not admit an error right away.

Answering our Doubt (Luke 1:5-25)

  • this morning I want to take you on a journey in your minds to a remote Indian village in Peru
  • I want you to imagine landing in a floatplane and taxiing to the riverbank
  • our guide is going to take us through the main "street" in town, but really it's just a dirt path surrounded by a dozen huts built on stilts and covered with palm roofs.
  • we're going to visit a small, granite marker just off the main path and listen to the story of a young missionary who planted a thriving church in that village
  • this missionary's six-month old son died from a sudden onset of vomiting and diarrhea
  • it was about this time that the young missionary seemed to crack
  • he hewed a marker by hand from local stone, buried his baby's body, and planted a tree beside the grave
  • at the hottest part of each day, when everyone else sought shade, the missionary walked to the river and hauled back a jug of water for the tree
  • then he stood beside the grave, his shadow falling across it, as if to shield it from the blazing sun
  • sometimes he would weep, sometimes he would pray, and sometimes he would just stand there with a vacant gaze
  • his wife, and the Indian church members, and other missionaries all tried to help him, but nothing would comfort his sorrow
  • eventually, the missionary himself got sick
  • his mind wandered, and he had constant diarrhea
  • he was flown to Lima, where doctors probed him for any signs of amoebae or other tropical organisms, but they found nothing
  • no medication seemed to work
  • eventually they diagnosed his problem as "hysterical diarrhea" and sent him and his wife back to the United States
  • as we stand before this crumbling granite marker in our imagination, we notice that it is now used by Indian women to rest their watering pots
  • as the sun beats down on us, some questions come to mind:
  • why did this baby die?
  • the missionary had brought his family to serve God in the jungle - was this his reward?
  • the missionary had also prayed for some sign of God's presence, or at least a word of comfort
  • why did he feel none?
  • the reality is this morning, all of us have, from time to time, the same questions of God, on either an intellectual or emotional level
  • why does a mother of young children face death by cancer right before Christmas?
  • why is a woman who has spent all her life dreaming of having children, unable to have one?
  • why is a youth pastor killed tragically in a car accident when he is faithfully serving God?
  • why is a young Christian diagnosed with chronic illness?
  • this morning I want to introduce you to an older couple
  • their names are Zechariah, and Elizabeth
  • the record says that this couple lived honorably before God, careful to keep the commands of God, and enjoying a clean conscience before him
  • we read that Zechariah was a priest
  • there's one problem that this couple has experienced
  • like approximately a quarter of couples today, this couple cannot have a baby
  • they are childless
  • we read that this was especially important to Elisabeth, who felt that her childlessness was a disgrace
  • not having children deprived them of the personal happiness that comes with kids
  • but it also was thought to indicate divine dishonor, and in that day it often led to social reproach
  • the thinking went like this: if children are a blessing from the Lord, not having children obviously means that God has chosen not to bless us
  • there's no one to carry on the family name
  • this is the reality and frustration of being childless
  • the Scripture says that they were childless, and were quite old
  • in his goodness, God picks an important moment in Zechariah's career to make his divine move
  • as a priest, he served at the temple for two one-week periods every year
  • he was one of 18,000 priests
  • a priest only officiated at the sacrifice once in his life, having been selected by lot
  • and so one day at the temple, Zechariah is selected for the most important task of his entire life: to offer incense on the altar while the congregation waits outside
  • at this high moment, God begins to work in a fresh way to redeem humankind by revealing the forerunner of the One who would take sin away from the earth
  • the passage says:
  • 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
  • 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
  • then the angel announces the birth of John the Baptist, a man who will call people to repentance and prepare the way for the Lord Jesus Christ
  • this is where the Christmas story begins in the Gospel of Luke
  • I think this story has application to those of us who question God in the face of suffering
  • I'm not going to provide any glib answers or formulas this morning, because you're too smart for that
  • this morning's topic could be the source of volumes of books
  • I don't have all the answers, and I don't want to dispense meaningless platitudes this morning
  • instead, I want to draw out a few principles from this passage which stand the test of time, principles based on the way that Zechariah and Elizabeth responded:
  • the first principle is this
  • SOMETIMES RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE HAVE DISAPPOINTMENTS IN LIFE
  • these godly people had lived their lives with deep disappointment, never having the child they longed for
  • and yet, at the beginning of the story, they're both called "upright people"
  • we can conclude, therefore, that their situation is not a result of personal sin
  • nor is it because they don't have enough faith
  • there are many godly people experiencing hardship, and while we don't know why, it's not just ungodly people who suffer
  • in the fall of 1991, Gerald Sittser and his family were returning home from a weekend trip when a drunk driver struck their minivan head-on
  • as a result, he lost his mother, his wife of 20 years, and a four-year-old daughter
  • he and his other three children escaped relatively unharmed
  • Sittser comments, "A pause at a stop sign, a last-minute switch of seats before departure, a slower or faster acceleration after a turn would have spared us all unspeakable suffering"
  • he continues, "I have asked the question, 'Why me?' often, as many people do after suffering loss...Loss has little to do with fairness: There is often no reason for the misery of some and the happiness of others. Our universe is hardly a safe place; it is often mean, unpredictable, and unjust, resulting in our asking the question over and over, 'Why me?"
  • "Once I heard someone ask the opposite question, 'Why not me?'...He asked it after his wife died of cancer, acknowledging that suffering is simply a part of life. They had been married for 30 years and had enjoyed many happy moments together. But then the time came to experience another, more painful side of life. He could no more explain why his life had turned bad than he could explain why his life had been so good up to that point. 'Why not me?' is as good a question as any. This man had perspective...
  • "So why not me? Why should I expect to live an entire lifetime free of disappointment and suffering? That expectation strikes me as both unrealistic and arrogant."
  • why not me?
  • I wonder how you would respond
  • I have a friend who plays golf, and he jokes when he has a good golf game that God must be pleased with him
  • but when a friend has a high golf score, he mustn't be walking with the Lord
  • theologians wrestle with the question of why bad things happen to good people
  • in wrestling with this problem, some of them come to some pretty silly conclusions, that God is not all-powerful after all
  • the Psalms address this problem and basically teach that God will make it right in eternity
  • and we ask, why not now?
  • why is life not fair?
  • God tells us, hardship is not a sign of sin
  • it's simply the result of living in a life of pain
  • and the pain is simply a result of the sin that entered the world
  • a second observation is this:
  • WE SHOULD NEVER UNDERESTIMATE GOD
  • 18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
  • 19 The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.
  • 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
  • Zechariah raises doubts about the angel's message, because he and Elizabeth are beyond childbearing age
  • the angel says to him in effect, "Just be quiet for awhile and watch God work"
  • and so a sign of silence is given until God performs his word
  • instead of talking, Zechariah must listen to God and trust that he will do what he has promised
  • sometimes underestimating God is as dangerous as rebelling against him
  • even though Zechariah was a priest, a holy man, there was obviously some slippage in his life
  • Zechariah didn't overtly commit a sin
  • instead, he was hesitant to accept God's word
  • what God promises, he will perform
  • he made the mistake of underestimating God
  • there are those of us who resemble the town that was experiencing a drought
  • the town gathered to pray for rain, but only one little boy brought an umbrella to the prayer meeting
  • we're like the early Christians who prayed for Peter's release from prison, and when God answered their prayers and released him, they left him standing outside and thought they had seen a ghost
  • we're surprised when God answers prayer
  • don't let any of us ever doubt God's ability to answer prayer
  • for years now I've been praying for my father
  • that he would become a follower of Jesus Christ
  • as a child I was confident that God would answer my prayer
  • but now, twenty years later, I'm tired of praying this prayer
  • in a sense, I'm underestimating God
  • some of you have been praying for something for a long time
  • if the truth is told, we're tired of praying
  • and if God ever answered our prayer, nobody would be more surprised than you
  • to you this passage says: "Don't underestimate God!"
  • Zechariah was a slow learner, like some of us are
  • God had to send him adversity before he could start to learn
  • maybe you and I will catch on a bit faster
  • I wonder if that's why some of us have such a hard time praying
  • we say we believe that God answers prayer, but we don't really believe it
  • we pray out of obligation, and we pay lip service to prayer
  • but let me ask you this morning
  • do you really believe that God answers prayer?
  • or are you underestimating God?
  • I learn a lesson from Elizabeth in this passage
  • WE CAN TAKE OUR BURDEN TO GOD AND REJOICE WHEN IT IS LIFTED
  • Elizabeth pictures the righteous saint who takes her burden to God and rejoices when that burden is lifted
  • we can sympathize with Elizabeth in her childlessness
  • but she is also an example in how she responds
  • despite her personal disappointment, she faithfully serves God
  • even when the situation is reversed, she doesn't forget God, but instead rejoices in what he has done to renew her
  • I love how one version translates Elizabeth's response:
  • "She went off for five months, relishing her pregnancy. 'So, this is how God acts to remedy my unfortunate condition,' she said."
  • God heard their prayers
  • this morning, we can take whatever burden we have to God
  • and if God answers our prayers, we can come to God with our praise
  • I have two questions for you:
  • when bad things happen, do you abandon God?
  • is your faith conditional on God treating you the way that you think he should?
  • are you one of God's fair-weather friends?
  • next question: do you stick around when things are going well?
  • it's like the college student
  • the only time he ever phones home is when he needs money
  • some Christians are like that
  • the only time they ever pray is when they need something
  • and when God answers prayer, they're gone
  • Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to thank him
  • there's one more lesson from this passage
  • GOD ANSWERS IN HIS WAY AND IN HIS OWN TIME
  • what had been a long-term void in this couple's life as part of God's sovereign plan, where he stepped in late in the game to change the direction of past disappointments
  • the amazing thing is, the blessing was sweeter once it came, because it wasn't taken for granted
  • and in answering their prayer, he not only met their personal need, but gave them more than they asked for: that their son would prepare the way for Jesus Christ
  • you see, sometimes God's timing is not only different from ours, but it's also infinitely wiser
  • what God promises, he will perform - only he will do it in his time and sometimes in surprising ways
  • when the time of fulfillment comes, we then realize that his timing was better than ours
    • I asked for strength that I might achieve;
    • He made me weak that I might obey.
    • I asked for health that I might do great things;
    • He gave me grace that I might do better things.
    • I asked for riches that I might be happy;
    • He gave me poverty that I might be wise.
    • I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
    • He gave me weakness that I might feel a need of God.
    • I asked for all things that I may enjoy life;
    • He gave me life that I might enjoy all things.
    • I received nothing I asked for;
    • He gave me all that I had hoped for.
  • perhaps we sometimes wish we could be in the boardroom of heaven, telling God how to make his plans
  • this passage calls us to see that his plan has its own design and timing
  • the Creator of the universe knows what he is doing
  • this morning I want to ask you to bow in prayer
  • within this building, there are some hurting people
  • there might be some who are making the terrible mistake of underestimating God
  • perhaps they've been praying for a long time and God has never answered their prayer
  • this morning, Father, we realize that we don't know your mind
  • we don't know why we're experiencing the pain the way we are
  • Lord, some of us are in physical pain
  • others of us carry a deep hurt within our souls that only you can reach
  • this morning we commit this burden to you
  • my prayer is that you would answer our cries, perhaps with different timing than we're expecting, but hear our cries
  • help us to serve faithfully as Zechariah and Elizabeth did
  • thank you for John the Baptist
  • thank you for the way he prepared the way for Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate in a few weeks
  • but thank you also that you heard this old couple's prayer 2,000 years ago, and gave them a child
  • we believe that you still answer prayers today
  • so hear our prayers, we pray. Amen.