Mary (Luke 1 and 2)

About three years ago, I stood on a street in Jerusalem on the road that some people think Jesus took to the cross. As we passed by a wall, our guide pointed out an indent in the wall that about the size of an adult male hand. The guide proceeded to explain that as Jesus carried the cross along the street, he briefly paused at that exact spot in order to gain his breath for a second. The indent in that stone, he explained, was there to show us that Jesus had once rested and placed his hand there. I was amazed as a hush fell over the group and as several people went to that wall to place their hands and to feel the place where Jesus himself had walked.

We're in this series called "Christmas for Real People." Part of the reason why we're in this series is because it's easy to let myths and legends cloud our understanding of what actually took place just over two thousand years ago. There's a part of us that wants to believe that the stories in the Bible happened to people who were very different than us. Part of us wants to believe that stone melted like wax when Jesus touched it. If you've seen as many Christmas cards and sung as many Christmas carols and watched as many Christmas shows as I have, it's easy to begin having a distorted picture of what actually did take place two thousand years ago. We think that Jesus was born on a serene, peaceful night in irenic conditions, and that Mary had a halo around her head, and the baby awoke but no crying he made. But in believing this we start to lose the impact of the real Christmas story.

Here's the message of the Bible: that when God decided to send his one and only Son to earth, God chose very real people in a very real place to be participants in the drama. I hope that if you've been with us so far in this series, you've seen that the Christmas story included people that we can relate to. The Christmas story happened to people who were just like you and just like me.

In Luke 1, we're introduced to one of the main Christmas characters. Her name was Mary, and we all know her as the mother of Jesus. Luke 1:26-27 says, "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David." I want to take a moment and look at these verses to see what we can learn about Mary, and what this has to teach us for today. Out of the entire Bible, these two verses give us the most information about what we know of Mary, so let's take a look to see if we can understand exactly who Mary was.

FACTS ABOUT MARY

The Bible says, "God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary." The first fact that we learn about Mary is that Mary was from Nazareth. We don't know a lot about Nazareth, but we do know that it was a city much of a relatively small size in a relatively out-of-the-way place. Nazareth was not exactly a happening place at that time. In fact, one person said of Nazareth in John 1:46: "Nazareth...Can anything good come from there?" We don't know if that was the common impression of Nazareth at that time, but at least one person thought it. It wasn't a memorable place. It would be as impressive as saying that you're from Hamilton or from Sudbury. That's the first fact about Mary that we learn. MARY WAS FROM AN OUT-OF-THE-WAY PLACE.

Luke 1:27 continues, "She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David." That's the second fact that we learn about Mary: MARY WAS UNMARRIED BUT ENGAGED OR BETROTHED. You need to understand that the marriage system was very different back then. Mary was in the worst of both worlds. She had lost all the benefits of singleness without gaining any of the benefits of married life. Mary had entered an agreement to be married to Joseph - an agreement that was legally binding. There were only two ways to get out of a betrothal: death and divorce. If the betrothal ended because of death, then the girl would be considered a widow, even though she had not yet been married. So, Mary was in this state of being legally bound to be married to someone, and yet not yet married.

The fact that Mary was engaged points us to a third fact that we can conclude about Mary: MARY WAS PROBABLY VERY YOUNG - MAYBE IN HER EARLY TEENS. In those days, the engagement or betrothal would take place very soon after puberty. It's possible that Mary was only 12 or 13 years old. Mary was an incredibly young person by today's standards to be getting married and to be having children.

To put these facts together, Mary was an early teenage girl from an out-of-the-way place who was likely poor and uneducated.

As we come up on Christmas, have you ever asked, "Why out of all the women in the world, God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus?" She was a little peasant girl, yet she became the mother of the Savior of the world. God could have chosen any way for Jesus to enter the world, yet he chose the same way that all of us arrived here: Jesus was born as a baby. Not only that, but Mary was a very ordinary mother. God chose the most ordinary way for the most extraordinary event to take place. Why? I believe that God's trying to teach us a lesson.

THE LESSON

You and I have a hard time believing that God can use something ordinary. In fact, if we were to be truthful, a lot of us would have a hard time believing that God could use us. But you'd be dead wrong if you believe that. Because of nothing else, the story of Mary teaches us one thing: that...

GOD USES ORDINARY PEOPLE...

You may feel completely ordinary, completely average. You may feel like you fit right into the middle of the bell curve. You may feel like you've got average finances, average looks, an average car, and average-size pants. But Mary teaches us that God loves to use ordinary people. God loves to use people just like you and just like me.

Over the years, people have developed a lot of weird theories about Mary. In fact, there's a whole phenomenon called Mariology that refers to the theories that people have developed. Some believe that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Others started to call Mary the Mother of God - a statement that never appears in the Bible. Others took a story in the Bible, in which people approached Mary at a wedding to speak to her son, as an argument that we can pray to Mary to try to get her Son to do us favors. They've almost made her a special intercessor. It's the reasoning that if you can't get Jesus to do something, maybe his mother can. Some have even gone so far as to venerate Mary. Some have even asserted that Mary was born completely sinless and lived a sinless life. I don't want to guess as to why all these theories developed, but I wonder if part of the reason is because we have a hard time believing that God can use an ordinary person. We have a hard time believing that God can use a person just like you, and just like me.

In the past couple of months, I've run into some pretty extraordinary people a couple of times. They're pretty famous. They're also pretty rich. They live in a nice part of town. They own their own house, and to create a bit more space for themselves, they also purchased the two houses next to them and knocked them down to give themselves a bigger backyard. When Nelson Mandela was in town the other week, the party in his honor was held at their house. It was by invitation only and it cost $5,000 each.

One of them owns a takeover firm that's grown from a net worth of two million dollars - a huge sum to me - to owning assets worth almost twenty billion dollars. The other one is CEO of Canada's largest bookstore chain. To top it off, they're incredibly youthful looking and also very decent people.

Twice in the past few months, I've attended the same event as them. At the last event, Charlene and I were touring the new theatre that opened at Islington and the Queensway when we almost b umped right into them. I don't know if you've ever met people like this. Wonderful people, talented people, but by no means ordinary. You would have a hard time believing that they're ordinary in any way.

Part of me wants to believe that when God acts, God uses people like that. It seems hard to believe that God could use ordinary people from ordinary places with ordinary abilities. But that's exactly the kind of person that God loves to use. 1 Corinthians 1:28-29 says, "God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God."

How was Mary ordinary? Mary was young and came from an out-of-the-way place. Mary also had NORMAL REACTIONS. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her, Luke 1:29 says that Mary was "confused and disturbed." The Greek for "confused and disturbed" is petrified, scared to death. Mary reacted the exact same way that you and I would have reacted. Mary was scared to death when the angel responded. Mary had normal reactions.

Mary also had NORMAL DOUBTS. There are times in the Bible that you get the idea that Mary didn't completely grasp what was taking place. That's okay - I wouldn't be either! When an old man recognized who was Jesus in the Temple, Luke 2:33 says, "Joseph and Mary were amazed at what was being said about Jesus." You get the impression that even though Joseph and Mary knew who Jesus was, they were struggling to absorb all the details. Later, when Jesus was twelve, he stayed behind at the Temple and they lost track of him. Luke 2:48 says, "His parents didn't know what to think. 'Son!' his mother said to him. 'Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.'" These are words that every parent can relate to. Mary sometimes was bewildered and didn't know what to think. One time she even tried to interrupt his public ministry (Mark 3:31). Mary had normal doubts, just like you and I would.

If we can read in between the lines a little, it's likely that Mary also had NORMAL PROBLEMS, just like you and I would. The last time that you read about Mary's husband, Joseph, is when Jesus was twelve. You never read about him after that. When Jesus died, Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to his best friend, John. It seems that Joseph may have died sometime between when Jesus turned twelve and when he began his public ministry. Those of you who have lost a spouse can relate to what Mary must have gone through. Mary went through problems, just like you and I would.

You may feel like you can't do anything for God because you're so ordinary. God specializes in using ordinary people. When God was looking for a spokesperson, he chose someone who stuttered. When God was looking for a giant-slayer, he chose the only kid in the family who wasn't a soldier. When God was looking for someone to be the mother of his only Son, he looked for a single, poor, uneducated peasant teen. God loves to use ordinary people. God loves to use people like you, people like me.

But the message doesn't stop there. God loves to use ordinary people. Because in one sense, Mary was completely ordinary. There was nothing extraordinary about her. But the question becomes, "Why did God choose her? Why, out of all the women in the world, did God choose Mary? The reason is that there's a particular type of ordinary person that God loves to use. Mary teaches us this:

GOD USES ORDINARY PEOPLE WHO COMPLETELY SURRENDER TO HIM.

Although Mary was completely ordinary, Mary possessed one quality that enabled her to be used by God. It's this: Mary surrendered to God. After the angel appeared to Mary and told her the news of what was going to happen, Mary asked only one question: "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin" (Luke 1:34). She didn't express doubt. She didn't ask for a sign. She just wanted an explanation. And after Gabriel answered her question, having given her news that was going to shake her world, Mary responded with these words: "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true" (Luke 1:38).

Think about it. Mary is about to have a baby out of wedlock. She's going to have to explain it to her parents and to everyone else. Her explanation? The Holy Spirit came upon her. She's going to tell her fiancé, "I'm pregnant, and you're not the father, but it's God." Right. Would you buy a story like that? That's like saying, "I had a date with Elvis last week," or, "I had an interaction with a UFO." Mary knew that she was about be misunderstood and ridiculed, possibly by those closest to her. Read her response again: "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true" (Luke 1:38).

If you were to do one thing that would make it easy for God to use you, it would be to come to the point of complete surrender to God. It would be to say to God, "I'm willing to accept whatever you want, no matter how it affects me." God does amazing things through people who are completely surrendered to him.

Three attitudes that Mary possessed, that are common to people who are completely surrendered to God:

MARY HUMBLED HERSELF BEFORE GOD. Do you think that there might have been some temptation to get proud as the mother of Jesus? Mary never did this. Mary never let her pride get in the way of being used by God. She didn't have false pride - she didn't act all "gee, shucks" and deny that she was being used in a unique way. But she refused to take the glory. She gave all the glory to God. Mary said, "Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation will call me blessed" (Luke 1:46-48). Mary gave all the praise to God.

One of the greatest indications of Mary's humility is how few times she's mentioned in the Gospels. I told you before that Jesus' best friend, John, adopted her after Jesus died. John was also the writer of one of the Gospels. John's Gospel mentions Mary only twice. Both times that John mentions Mary, it's in the context of Mary taking a backseat to her son Jesus Christ. If Mary was proud, she probably would have been muscled her way into that Gospel. But Mary was humble. She served her role as Jesus' mother and moved out of the way. In fact, the last time you see Mary in the Bible, she's simply with other believers praying (Acts 1:14). Mary humbled herself before God.

James 4:6 says, "God sets himself against the proud, but he shows favor to the humble." If you're going to be used by God, if you're going to be surrendered, you're also going to be humble. You're going to have to let God get the glory. You're going to have to surrender your pride to him.

MARY BELIEVED GOD'S PROMISES. It takes courage to be used by God. God uses people who trust his promises. The angel told Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). Mary surrendered to God because she trusted God to keep his promises. She believed that he would do what he had said.

A little after Mary received the news from the angel, Mary penned a song that's recorded in Luke 1:46-55. Many people call this song the Magnificat. This song is remarkable for a number of things, but one of its features is that it's full of Scripture. Mary was a person who had spent time getting to know God through his Word. Mary knew God's promises. Mary was a person who had spent time in the Word of God, and her mind had been steeped in his promises. One of the most practical steps that we can take is to get to know the Word of God - to find a version that we can understand, and to begin reading it to learn more about God and what he says to us. If you need help on where you should start and how you can understand what you read, we'd love to help you. Mary believed God's promises. This is important if you're going to be surrendered to God.

MARY ALSO RECEIVED GOD'S GRACE. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said these words: "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" (Luke 1:28) Mary was highly favored because she was the recipient of God's grace. Ultimately, there was nothing that Mary did to deserve to be used by God. She was used because of God's grace. It was a gift to her. Whenever God uses somebody, it's not because they deserve to be used. It's ultimately because God chooses to favor us by letting us be used by him.

There's one other time in the Bible that similar words appear to the greeting that was given to Mary. The greeting, again, was this: "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" In Ephesians 1:6, a similar combination of words takes place. Ephesians 1:6 says, "So we praise God for the wonderful kindness he has poured out on us [the same word as highly favored us] because we belong to his dearly loved Son." Just as God highly favored Mary, God wishes to highly favor each of us. God wants to pour out his wonderful kindness upon us. How? Ephesians 1:7 says, "He is so rich in kindness that he purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven." The very reason that Jesus came is so that you and I could be highly favored. Jesus came to purchase our freedom from the sins we had committed by shedding his blood, so that we could be forgiven. There's nothing that we do to earn this from God. It's a free gift. All we have to do is to receive it.

Ephesians 2:8 says, "God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God." One of the best steps that you can take this Christmas is to receive the gift that Jesus came to give each of us. You can choose to be used by God by giving your life to him, by being forgiven, by receiving the gift of eternal life. You can receive the special favor from God that's poured out freely upon us - not because we deserve it, but because we're highly favored by God.

I'm so glad that Mary was an ordinary person. I'm glad that God loves to use ordinary people like me, like you. We don't have to be extraordinarily gifted or extraordinarily placed. We can be used by God, just as we are. All we have to do is to surrender to him, to say as Mary did, "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true."

Two questions for you: Have you taken the step of coming to Jesus and becoming an ordinary person who's been extraordinarily forgiven? There's no catch. You don't have to do anything. You just have to receive what's being offered to you freely. You just need to receive the gift of eternal life by responding in faith, by beginning to follow him. That can happen today. That's question one: have you taken that step?

But here's question two. In the busyness of life, in the middle of doubts that you could ever be used by God in your circumstances, with your abilities, with your limitations - have you ever taken the step of saying what Mary did? Would you be willing to offer yourself to be used by God today - obviously in a different way - but to be used as he sees fit? Would you be willing to say what Mary did - "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants." Are you at the point of absolute surrender to God?

Father, thank you that you use ordinary people. We don't have to have extraordinary gifts or extraordinary abilities. We do need to surrender. It's like one person said: "The world has yet to see what God can do in and through and for the person who is totally committed to Christ."

Father, I want to be that person. I want to be an ordinary person who's completely surrendered to you. Use me, I pray, in the name of the one who came into an ordinary woman's womb and was born to live a perfect life, to die in my place, and to rise again to give me new life. In his name I pray, Amen.

How to Live with Faith (Hebrews 11:8-19)

"What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see. God gave his approval to people in days of old because of their faith." (Hebrews 11:1-2)

What does faith look like? Hebrews 11 provides living, breathing examples of faith. Abraham teaches us three actions of faith lived out.

1) FAITH LEAVES WHAT SEEMS FAMILIAR

"It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going." (Hebrews 11:8)

2) FAITH BELIEVES WHAT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE

"It was by faith that Sarah together with Abraham was able to have a child, even though they were too old and Sarah was barren. Abraham believed that God would keep his promise." (Hebrews 11:11)

3) FAITH SURRENDERS WHAT SEEMS IRREPLACEABLE

"It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God's promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, though God had promised him, 'Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.' Abraham assumed that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead." (Hebrews 11:17-19)

The Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)

Good morning. We're going through a special Christmas series called "Christmas for Real People." We're trying to look at some of the main characters of the Christmas story two thousand years ago and ask, "Who were they as real people? What do we know about them? And what can we learn from our lives?"

I don't know if you can relate to this, but there are quite a few stories in my family that have been so exaggerated over time that it's hard to know what actually happened. When I was little, my mother would occasionally take us out to Mother's Pizza for their $1.99 all-you-can-eat spaghetti nights. Does anybody remember that special? Our family is one of the reasons why Mother's Pizza is no longer in business. We used to go - the five of us - and we would end up with five orders of that special. Over time, the stories changed so that the five of us would go, my mother would order a plate of spaghetti and five forks, and a glass of water with five straws, and all of us would eat for $1.99. Stories get distorted over the years.

Today we're going to look at a group of people who are an important part of the Christmas story. The only problem is that the stories and myths surrounding these people have grown so it's very difficult to understand a lot about them. They're called the Wise Men or, as I'm going to call them, the magi.

If you grew up in a church, you've automatically got this picture of three kings from the Orient bearing gifts, walking a little stooped over with three camels, following this star which eventually stops over a manger on Christmas morning, and they go in and find baby Jesus lying in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The problem is, almost none of that is accurate. There are few stories in the Bible that are clouded with as much myth and tradition as this one. This week as I read this passage, it was amazing to me how much confusion and mystery has grown around who these people were and what happened. I think it's safe to say that there are more opinions about this passage than almost any other passage in the Bible. And there are not only opinions, but there are songs like We Three Kings, and nativity scenes and Christmas cards that have shaped our opinions. I want to help peal back some of the confusion today and try to figure out what really happened, and what it means for our lives today.

Let's begin by looking at the story, which is found in Matthew 2. In fact, I'd like to read you the story, and then to begin to destroy some of the myths that have grown around these mysterious magi.

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star as it arose, and we have come to worship him."

Herod was deeply disturbed by their question, as was all of Jerusalem. [If you were here last week, you'll understand that when Herod got upset, everybody got upset.] He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law. "Where did the prophets say the Messiah would be born?" he asked them.
"In Bethlehem," they said, "for this is what the prophet wrote:

'O Bethlehem of Judah,
you are not just a lowly village in Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.'"

Then Herod sent a private message to the wise men, asking them to come see him. At this meeting he learned the exact time when they first saw the star. Then he told them, "Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!"

After this interview the wise men went their way. Once again the star appeared to them, guiding them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house where the child and his mother, Mary, were, and they fell down before him and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But when it was time to leave, they went home another way, because God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (Matthew 2:1-12)

QUIZ

Now you've read the story, let me give you a little quiz to see how you do. This is an open-book exam, so go ahead and look to find out the answers:

1. How many scholars or magi were there?
2. What did these scholars or magi do for a living?
3. What did they follow to find Jesus?
4. When did they arrive to worship Jesus?

Okay, let's see how you did.

FIRST, how many scholars or magi were there? How many people answered three? The answer: we just don't know. The Bible tells us there were more than one. It says "some wise men." But it doesn't tell us how many. Some people think that there were three because they presented three gifts. Other traditions say that there were two, four, even twelve magi. Some traditions have even given them names, and one church claims to have their skulls. But we just don't know how many magi there were.

The good news is that if you have a nativity scene at home, and your kid breaks one of your Wise Men, it's okay. You can just say that you belong to the tradition that only has two of them. It's a very comforting fact.

SECOND: what did these magi do for a living? How many people said they were kings? The first recorded reference to these men as kings took place two hundred years after the event actually took place. Why would anybody guess that they were kings? Two reasons. First, they were rich enough to afford very expensive gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the second reason is that the Bible prophesied that kings would come and worship Jesus. But there's no indication in this passage that they were kings. They're identified as being magi, a word that we could probably translate as astrologer. They were probably Persian priest-astrologers.

Astrology was a widely respected science in those times in the Roman world. Studies show that the astrologers of that day had an astonishing knowledge of astronomy. Magi at that time were physician-astrologers who healed the sick, interpreted dreams, and cast horoscopes.

Even though the Jewish faith was against astrology, many people of that day, including some Jews, put stock in astrological predictions. That's why when these magi communicated news of a king's birth to Herod, it was taken seriously. Constellations and comets and alignments all meant something. They signified the birth of a great Caesar, what type of life that Caesar would live, potential disasters that were about to take place, and so on. These magi had a very scientific knowledge of astronomy, and they applied that into the field of astrology. We're going to see why this is important in a few minutes.

QUESTION THREE: what did they follow to find Jesus? How many people said star? How many people said something else - a comet, a supernova, a planet, or just a miracle? The verse I read called it a star. There are a lot of theories that people have developed to explain what it is. So the answer to this question is that we don't know - although I do want to describe to you a very compelling theory in just a few minutes.

Numbers 24:17: "A star will rise from Jacob; a scepter will emerge from Israel." We don't know if the magi knew this verse, but we do know that Matthew knew this verse. No matter what the star was - and I have my theory - it's presented as a supernatural act of God to reveal the birth of his Son. You could say, no matter what theory you hold, that the appearance of this star was a miracle.

FOUR: When did they arrive to worship Jesus? How many people said Christmas morning? You're not sure if it's before or after the shepherds arrived, but it was sometime on Christmas morning. This could be good news for you if your child destroys all the wise men in your nativity set, b ecause the magi were never at the inn with the baby Jesus. Matthew 2:11 says that they entered a house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived. By this time, Mary and Joseph were married, living in a house, and intending to stay in Bethlehem for a while. Jesus was probably one or two years old by the time the magi found him. He may have been walking by then. That explains why Herod killed all the boys up to the age of two. Jesus was much older than a newborn baby by this time.

How did you do on this quiz? How many people have to go home and fix their nativity scenes now? It's a challenge to see past all the legends to see what actually took place two thousand years ago.

ONE THEORY

Out of all the research I did this week, one potential explanation for this remarkable story seemed to make the most sense. There's a danger in sharing it with you. A lot of us grew up with a very scientific, logical approach to life. If we couldn't explain something logically, then we couldn't believe it. The theory I'm about to give you is very logical, but in one way that doesn't matter. I don't think we should get stuck on logically explaining every detail of this story. But on the other hand, this theory is very helpful in filling in some of the details and helping us to understand what we can learn from the magi. I love this theory because it's a theory that isn't based on a modern understanding of what happened. It's based on the beliefs that astronomers at that time held, discovered in ancient documents from that time.

On April 17, 6 BCE, a remarkable event took place in astronomy. On that day, the moon passed in front of Jupiter in the constellation Aries. I can tell by the blank look on your face that that means very little to you. Jupiter is named after the supreme deity of the ancient Romans, so Jupiter would have signified king. Aries the Ram was the zodiac symbol for the ancient kingdom of Judea. On that day, the sun, moon, and Saturn were all nearby, all within the sign of Aries the Ram. All of these would have been recognized by astronomers of that day as indicating the birth of an incredibly great king.

Another event also happened in the heavens that year. On December 19, 6 BCE, Jupiter underwent what's called a retrograde action. It's an optical illusion created by the orbit of the planets. As the earth's orbit catches up to another planet, such as Jupiter, the planet's movement across the sky appears to slow and stop.

So here's what may have happened. The astrologers of that day recognized were continually looking to the skies to signify great events or disasters that were taking place. Ancient stargazers described in detail the celestial conditions for the births of kings and emperors. On a particular day, a planetary arrangement took place that could show only one thing: the birth of a great king in Judah. His signs were recognized as greater than the signs of the greatest king of that time, Caesar Augustus. They understood this sign, as did Herod, because they understood Greek astrology. As they approached Bethlehem, Jupiter underwent a retrograde action, which made it look like it went and stood over where Jesus was. (The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar).

THE LESSONS

So you have two groups of people. On one hand, you've got all the religious leaders of the day. Matthew 2:7 says the "leading priests and teachers of religious law" got together to study where the Messiah was born. You've got all the good guys - those with a direct connection with God. This group included the current and past high priests - a position that would rotate every year. This was the guy who went in to the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, once a year on the Day of Atonement to represent the entire nation before God. He was also head of the supreme court of the Jewish nation. He's there, with all the other people who held that position before him, along with the leading Bible scholars of the time. These people knew the Bible inside out. They were even able to discover with precision where the Messiah was to be born. These were the good guys.

Then you've got this group of foreign astrologers. Their practices are condemned in Scriptures. They're probably not even from the Jewish race, and their entire profession is a dishonorable one.

You've got these two groups of people - the religious leaders who are just five miles away from where Jesus was born, and the magi who are from hundreds of miles away. And which group does God choose to come and worship his Son, whom he had just sent to earth? He picked the astrologers. He bypassed the religious leaders of the day and went for the astrologers.

There are a lot of messages in this passage for us. We could focus on the worship that is due to Jesus as king. We could focus on the reactions of the different groups. But this passage was written to a Jewish audience. It was written to a group of people who would have a very hard time believing that God would speak to astrologers. They would have a very hard time believing that God would choose that kind of person to come and worship his Son.

What type of person is God looking for to worship him? The picture that many of us carry is the type of person who belongs in church. You know the kind. There are some people that you just don't look like God's type. Do you know who I mean? I've got a mental list of people who just don't look like they'd be of much use to God. If you're honest, you've probably got a list too. I want to spend just a few minutes talking to two groups of people, to see if we can really take this home.

I WANT TO TALK FIRST TO THOSE OF US WHO LOOK LIKE WE BELONG IN CHURCH. You know who you are. You don't have too many tattoos, the only part of your body that's pierced is your ears, and then only if you're female; you probably brought a Bible with you, you can quote John 3:16, and you admit you're a sinner because one time you didn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign. This story is written for us to help us think outside the box - to help us realize that God's plan might include more people than us. It's written to help us understand that maybe God is planning to love and to reach people who don't look like us, who don't feel like they belong, who don't really fit the picture of a person who would follow Jesus.

I'm a little bit scared by the fact that it's the religious people who seemed to have missed most of what Jesus had to offer. There's only one group of people that really didn't get along with Jesus. It was the religious crowd. This was the only group of people that Jesus treated harshly.

But there was another group of people that Jesus loved. There were the scam artists of the day - the tax collectors. There were the immoral women, the prostitutes. There were obviously a few drinkers around, because Jesus was called a drunkard because of his association with them. Jesus loved to hang around people that the religious crowd had written off. Listen to what they said about Jesus: "'He's a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of the worst sort of sinners!" (Matthew 11:19). Is it possible that God isn't as impressed with how we appear churchy and religious, as much as we think? Is it possible that we're actually at danger of missing out on real worship? Of not joining what he's doing, because he uses different people than we would pick?

The lesson for those of us who look like we belong in church is this: LOOK AT PEOPLE LIKE GOD DOES. Let me put it differently. Who are the astrologers in your life? Who are the people that you're pretty sure God won't reach, that God won't invite? Somebody who's engaged in behavior that you know God won't approve of - immoral behavior that you certainly wouldn't condone. Is it possible that God sees them differently? Is it possible that those in our lives wh o are into the party scene, whose bodies are more tattooed than a wall mural, who have holes in their body where no holes belong, who act in ways we can't appreciate - is it possible that God wants to rock our world by choosing these people to love? Is it possible that we have to look at them differently?

The astrologers brought Jesus gifts - precious gifts, which was the custom of that day when you approached a superior. The other custom of the day is that the gifts would be reciprocated. Matthew 2 never mentions that the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were reciprocated in any way. But some scholars say that the gifts from these gentiles were reciprocated at the very end of Matthew, the last two verses, in which Jesus says: "Go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19). It's possible, according to some scholars, that Matthew wants us to see this as the gift that Jesus wanted to return to those who weren't Jewish, who weren't religious, who didn't belong. The gift Jesus returned is this: they get to be forgiven too. They get to receive the gift that Jesus came to offer. It's no longer just for the religious group, the in-people. It's for everyone.

The fact that most of us aren't Jewish means that we've received the gift that was reciprocated to the magi. They offered their worship to Jesus. And Jesus has offered to us his reciprocated gift: the chance to be accepted by him, even though we don't belong.

So look at other people differently. Don't write them off. Don't look down on them. See them the way Jesus would, even if they do things differently than we think God likes.

I want to speak for a second to the other group, THE GROUP THAT FEELS LIKE WE DON'T BELONG. You really don't feel like you belong in church. You maybe feel like your friends would kill themselves if they knew you were in church. You may even be here because your spouse drags you here, or because you have a friend. You may be the most reluctant person who came through the doors this morning.

The message of the story for you is this: YOU BELONG MORE THAN YOU THINK. When God decided to throw a welcoming party for his Son, he chose only a few people to attend. He chose an unmarried couple in their teens to attend as the parents. He chose some shepherds - probably teenagers working a job about as prestigious as working at McDonalds. And he chose some astrologers. He bypassed the people we would have chosen, and invited the people that, at least by our standards, didn't really belong.

So you belong. God loves you more than you could ever imagine. Ephesians 2:1 says, "Once you were dead, doomed forever because of your many sins." You may relate to that verse. A lot of us are or were at the very end of ourselves. We did things. We made mistakes. We realized that we had not only damaged ourselves and the people around us, but we had actually died spiritually. And the Bible says that we were separated from God and doomed forever.

"But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so very much, that even while we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead" (Ephesians 2:4). Even if you feel you don't belong, God is rich in mercy. He loves you very much. He wants you to have new life and forgiveness, not because of anything you've done, but because that's why Jesus came.

Jesus came for people who don't belong. He came for people who weren't good enough. He came for people who wanted to be forgiven. He came to take their punishment, to die for them, to give them a fresh start and complete forgiveness. And you can receive this gift by responding in repentance - turning away from your sins; and faith - believing that Jesus came to live, die, and rise again for you.

You belong. You're the reason that Jesus came. And you can come to worship him today.

Let's pray.

Father, forgive us for the times that we look down on people, because of how they look or what they do or how they act. Help us to look at people as you see them. Help us to realize that your love extends to everybody. Help us to see them the way that you see them.

If you want to receive what Jesus came to bring - if you want to receive the gift of eternal life, then would you pray these words with me.

Father, I know that I'm a sinner. I know that as a result of that sin I was doomed forever. But Jesus came to die to forgive me from my sins, and to forgive me. Today I turn away from my sins and place my faith in Jesus. I receive the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Thank you that I belong. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Herod (Matthew 2:1-12)

We're starting a new series today called "Christmas Characters" or, put another way, "Christmas for Real People." For the next four weeks, we're going to look at some of the famous Christmas characters from the original Christmas story. I'd like to discover who these people really were and what they experienced that first Christmas. Then I'd like to see if there's anything that we can learn from their lives.

I almost feel sacrilegious saying this, but I find that Christmas can be a very challenging time of year. With so many Christmas cards with pictures of halos, so many songs written, so much mystique, it's hard for me to feel like I've really connected with what actually happened. I'd like to invite you to join me on a quest to really discover who some of the Christmas characters really were.

The first person I'd like to look at is someone who is hardly mentioned in the Bible. In fact, his name appears only a few times in Scripture. We don't know a lot about this man from the Bible, and that presents a bit of a problem. This man would have been very well known to the original readers of Scripture. When they read his name, they would have immediately recognized who he was and what his life was like. You wouldn't have to say a lot about this man for people to know who he was and what he was like. But it's different today. You probably know his name, but you don't know a lot about him. The man's name is King Herod, or as he's known in history, Herod the Great. He's introduced to the Bible story in Matthew 2:1, which says: "Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod." And his life is full of lessons for us today. What can we learn from the life of King Herod?

STRENGTHS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS

I'd like to begin by looking at some of Herod's strengths and accomplishments, because in many ways Herod was a man of incredible talent and accomplishment. Even though Herod came from a successful and well-placed family, a large part of Herod's success was due to his own strengths and talents. Even more impressive than a person who rises to the top is a person who stays at the top. Herod was able to remain king at a very volatile period for 42 years. So Herod had a lot going for him.

One of Herod's greatest strengths is that HEROD KNEW THE IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIPS. Herod could have written the statement, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Herod knew how to win friends and influence people. I read last week that the most successful people ask their bosses, "What do I need to do in order to get ahead in my job?" Herod was the kind of guy who would ask that sort of question. Herod knew the importance of relationships.

Herod became an expert at winning the approval of people who were above him. That's actually not a bad thing - it's good to win the approval of your boss. When the Roman government was short of money, Herod got their attention by raising a lot of tribute money for them. When enemies were threatening somebody above him, Herod was very quick to quell the rebellion. Herod knew how to work the crowd, to gain the favor of people above him, even to win the favor of the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful person alive at that time. When he was caught in the middle of fights between his superiors, Herod was able to maneuver his way between them. In a time of great intrigue and hostility, when he had many enemies and relationships could have been his undoing, Herod used his relationships for his advantage. He knew people, and he knew how to use people. I'm not saying that Herod always had pure motives in how he related to people, but he definitely possessed very good people skills.

We could learn from Herod's people skills. We probably shouldn't imitate his more devious side of relationships, but we should imitate the way that we learned how to win friends and influence people. This is very commendable. In fact, the Bible is full of advice on how to develop our personal relations with friends, family members, co-workers, and our superiors. Herod possessed very good people skills.

Herod had another great strength, which many people feel was his greatest achievement. In fact, many of you have probably seen this achievement of Herod's firsthand, two thousand years after he lived. HEROD WAS A GREAT BUILDER. Everybody has a desire to leave a legacy - something that people can point to after we're gone and say, "Wow. She really made a difference. His life really counted." It's been two thousand years since Herod lived, but you can still go to Israel and marvel at the buildings that he constructed. He built Jerusalem a magnificent theatre and amphitheatre. He rebuilt entire cities. If you go to Caesarea, on the coast of the Mediterranean, you can see the ruins the city and harbor that he built. I've stood in the amphitheatre there and marveled that it's lasted so long. Herod was such an accomplished builder that he even devised a trademark design for his building stones, some of which weighed up to 500 tons. Herod was known for his architectural taste and ability.

Herod's crowning achievement, though, was the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple. You may or may not know that the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed three times. The original one was built by Solomon, and was magnificent. Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and a second Temple was rebuilt by a man named Zerubbabel. The second Temple wasn't nearly as nice as the first. In fact, for many people, the second Temple was a disappointment. But Herod changed all that.

Around 20 BCE, Herod began to rebuild the Temple, a project that lasted over eighty years and involved over ten thousand workers. He did such a good job that he made it even more magnificent than even Solomon's original Temple had been. It ranked among the world's wonders of the day. Even when Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed in 70 CE (A.D.), the commander of that attack tried to spare the Temple from destruction because of its beauty. Listen to what Jesus' disciples said about the Temple: "Teacher, look at these tremendous buildings! Look at the massive stones in the walls!" (Mark 13:1). Josephus, one of the most famous historians of that day, wrote that his Temple project was "the most glorious of his actions...sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him." Herod was a lavish builder of cities and projects, and that has to go down as one of his greatest accomplishments.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, "Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom." Herod lived out this verse. He worked hard in an effort to leave a lasting legacy. I think a lot of us can relate to the need to make a contribution in our work, to know that our job really mattered, that we left the world a better place. Herod is to be commended in that he left behind a number of building projects that improved the world, and even were used in God's work.

Because of Herod's accomplishments, it's easy to see why he was called Herod the Great. Herod was a person of enormous talent and giftedness. His personality was impressive; he had great physical strength; his intellectual powers were far beyond ordinary; he had incredible will-power; he had great tact; he never wavered in knowing what to do. Especially during the first part of Herod's reign, one could easily recognize the seeds of greatness within the life of Herod. One report on Herod writes, "Herod was a born leader of men. Under a different environment he might have developed into a truly great man...he might have done great things" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). One of the greatest tragedies of Herod's life is that a person who was so incredibly gifted, and so enormously talented, could in the end squander that greatness and end up wasting his life, as well as destroying the lives of many others.

A couple of years ago, I took a university course. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of completing a course, and sitting down and taking the exam, and finding an entire section that looks like it came from another course. It's not just that you don't know the answer; you don't even understand the question. You certainly don't remember studying it. I think I left that section blank, or made something up, and when I returned home I flipped through the course materials to see if I had missed something. There was nothing. It really doesn't matter how well you've mastered the material if it isn't on the final exam.

WEAKNESSES

Herod's life is like that. He achieved greatness in many areas of his life, but ultimately he was a person who failed in what really mattered. What I haven't told you about are Herod's weaknesses. Even though Herod rebuilt the Temple, he also built pagan temples to worship other gods. And even though Herod knew how to relate to people, he became insecure and suspicious of both friends and enemies. He appointed his brother-in-law as high priest, but when his brother-in-law started to become too popular, he arranged for his servants to drown him in a pool to make it look like an accident. Sounds like the Sopranos, but it gets worse. He had his sons killed, he had his mother-in-law killed. It seems that Herod only really ever loved one person, his wife Mariamne, but he had even her killed because of his lust for power. His family life was so bad that Augustus Caesar said, "I would rather be Herod's hog than his son."

When he died, he was so concerned that nobody would mourn him that he ordered all the key leaders of Israel to the hippodrome, and he ordered that at the moment of his death, all of them should be killed so that there would be mourning at his funeral. Herod died ultimately unmourned and unloved. His name passed into history as a name soiled by violence and blood. The historian Josephus wrote of Herod:

A man he was of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passions, but above the consideration of what was right. Yet he was favored by fortune as much as any man ever was, for from a private man he became a king, and though he were encompassed by ten thousand dangers, he got clear of them all and continued his life to a very old age.

Matthew 2 tells us the story of what happened when Herod learned that a baby had been born who was supposed to be "king of the Jews" - a title that he had been awarded by Rome. The baby, of course, was Jesus. Matthew 2:16 says, "[Herod] sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under." From what we know of Herod, this act was quite in keeping with his temperament. The slaughter of a few infants in Bethlehem by Herod's guard would be unthinkable, but in comparison to his other crimes it was pretty mild, and it would have passed almost completely unnoticed by the people of his time.

It's easy to think that you and I really can't learn much from Herod's life. It's a little like asking, "What can I learn from the life of Osama bin Laden?" The reality is that we can learn a lot from Herod's life. Herod's life teaches us some important lessons that could greatly improve all of our lives. I want to wrap up today by looking at just some of those lessons.

The first lesson I learn from Herod's life is:

1. IMPROVE MY PEOPLE SKILLS

Herod is a perfect example of the importance of people skills. The fact that he used people for his own advantage, and seems to have been insincere with people, doesn't detract from the fact that knowing how to relate to people is one of the most important skills that we could ever learn. Herod rose to the top because he had good people skills. You and I need good people skills as well if we're to have good marriages, good jobs, good relationships with our friends.

The Bible is full of advice on how to have good people skills. You could look at the book of Proverbs alone and learn what God says about how we should speak, what we should say, how we should relate to our neighbors, what to do when the people around us are fighting. The Bible is an intensely practical book on the subject of relationships. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of relationships and people skills to the success of our lives.

1 Corinthians 14:1 says, "Let love be your highest goal." Imagine how great Herod would have been if he had genuinely loved others. We could do an entire series on relationships - on how to relate to others and to genuinely love them. In fact, we will do that in the future. But if there's one positive quality that we can emulate in Herod, it's that Herod had people skills. We can work to improve our people skills as well.

2. BE CAREFUL IN CHOOSING MY LEGACY

It's obvious that Herod made a choice to leave a legacy, and that legacy was related to his job. As King, he would build buildings, cities, palaces, and temples. He would establish his own name as great so that people thousands of years later would remember him with fondness. Herod was willing to sacrifice even his own family to achieve this legacy. But in the end, even Herod knew that he was a failure. Even Herod knew that the only reason people would mourn when he died was if he killed some great people at the time of his own death. The real legacy that Herod left was some crumbling but great buildings, and a reputation as a barbarian and an unloved man.

I want to ask you what might seem like a morbid question. What do you want to be remembered for when you're gone? We only have a short time here. Psalm 103 says, "Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone - as though we had never been here" (Psalm 103:15-16). One person in the Bible even prayed that God would show us the brevity of life (Psalm 90:12). I had a friend who asked me about ten years ago, "Darryl, what are you going to do with your one and only life?" I would like to ask you that question: what are you going to do with your one and only life? What legacy will you leave behind?

If you choose the wrong legacy, you'll leave nothing. Many of us, in reality, are like Herod - sacrificing our relationships to leave a legacy that will not last. If we asked our husband, our wife, our kids, whether or not we were sacrificing them to achieve our goals and ambitions, it may be a little scary to hear their answers.

A lot of people are aiming to leave their legacy in their careers. They're killing themselves to climb to the top, to reach the pinnacles of their profession. They're sacrificing weekends, evenings, holidays to do it. But very few find that the sacrifice has been worth it. There comes a day in which the sales awards, the corner office, the company with your own name, really doesn't cut it any more. I know people who have given up their long weekends to work in jobs that they hate, in careers they wouldn't choose, who have never even been appreciated or compensated for their work. I know people whose work literally consumes every waking thought that they have, but it's very unlikely they will achieve a lasting legacy at work. Ecclesiastes 2:20-24 says:

So I turned in despair from hard work. It was not the answer to my search for satisfaction in this life. For though I do my work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, I must leave everything I gain to people who haven't worked to earn it. This is not only foolish but highly unfair. So what do people get for all their hard work? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night they cannot rest. It is all utterly meaningless.

Can anyone relate to this passage? I'm not saying to quit your jobs, or that your jobs are all unimportant. But it's time for a reality check for some of us. It may be time to look at our priorities and what we're sacrificing to achieve success in our careers. I've buried a lot of people - some who were tremendous successes in their careers - but the greatest legacies I've seen left have nothing to do with careers and work. Don't follow Herod in sacrificing your relationships for career success.< /p>

Herod's legacy was buildings - but all the buildings he built are now ruins or destroyed. Herod's legacy was riches - but all the money has long since been spent and forgotten. What legacy are you building with your life? How would you like to be remembered? I don't know what answer you're going to give, but I do know that the people who have been the most appreciated at the funerals I've conducted, the ones whose lives are the easiest to celebrate, have left two legacies behind. They've all had two qualities in common: they invested heavily in relationships with people, and they invested heavily in their relationship with God. If you want a legacy that will outlast your life, then love people and love God. It's no accident that Jesus identified these as the two greatest commandments of Scripture (Matthew 22:37-40). I've never seen anyone yet who's wasted their life having lived out these two commandments. After examining every avenue for success, the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that the purpose of life is this: "Here is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is the duty of every person. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

I hope that when I die, I'm not primarily remembered for the churches I pastored, the buildings I built, the degrees I earned. I hope I'm remembered for having really loved God, and having really loved people.

Two people died on the same day. Both were great, but they achieved different types of greatness. One became a princess, and did many good things, on top of enjoying tremendous wealth and all the world had to offer. Another person died that day with hardly a penny to her name, on the streets of Calcutta, after a lifetime of serving forgotten, unloved people. Be careful in choosing a legacy. The best and most enduring legacies don't come from achievements and wealth, but from loving and serving God and others.

The third lesson from Herod's life:

3. WORSHIP JESUS

Last week, I saw an ad in the classified section of the newspaper. It said, "Join the debt-payers club. We repay all of your debts. You never repay us." This sounded too good to be true, so I checked out the website, but I didn't get too far because you had to leave your name and contact information. Imagine a way for you to take all your debts, all your mistakes, and have them wiped out with no repayment necessary.

Near the end of Herod's life, Herod was given an opportunity to make up for a very flawed life. Scholars think that Herod died around 4 BCE, within a short time of the birth of Jesus Christ. When Herod heard that Jesus had been born, he sent the Magi away to find him, with this request: "Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!" (Matthew 2:9). Imagine for a minute what would have happened if Herod's request had been sincere. Imagine if Herod's intention had been to genuinely worship Jesus, instead of slaughtering however many children it would take to ensure that his position was secure. This man, after years of cruelty and self-serving behavior, who had made the most tragic mistakes a person could ever make - taking the lives of those closest to him - could have found forgiveness. He could have had all of his past mistakes wiped out. He could have finally found true greatness by worshiping the one who came to forgive people just like him.

But Herod missed his opportunity. He died a short time later in great pain. He even contemplated suicide at one point. He died unloved and unhappy. He's remembered today as a man who had great potential who ultimately became one of the most tragic figures of history.

Imagine if things had been different. Imagine if Herod had worshiped Jesus.

The most tragic mistake that any person can make is to miss the opportunity to welcome and worship Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that Jesus is God, but that he came to earth as a person to live a perfect life, and to die in our place so that our sins could be forgiven, and to rise again to give us new life. Jesus came in the flesh to wipe out all of our mistakes, to pay all of our debts, so that we would never have to pay them. Romans 10:8-11 says:

Salvation that comes from trusting Christ-which is the message we preach-is already within easy reach. In fact, the Scriptures say, "The message is close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart."

For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, "Anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed."

The greatest opportunity that you and I have is right before us. It's not something that you have to go searching for. It's right here. It's the opportunity to have a fresh start with God, to have your sins forgiven, to become a new person. "For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

You're here today for a reason. You've been given the chance to worship Jesus. Like Herod, your response will determine everything about you. It will either become your greatest moment, the moment that redeems all your failures and mistakes. Or if you pass the opportunity, it could be your worst mistake. You could miss the opportunity to worship the one who came to love you and to forgive you.

I'm going to pray in a minute. I'm going to pray for two things. I'm going to pray a prayer that you can pray if you would like to worship Jesus. You can pray this prayer today if you would like to have a fresh start with God, to have your sins forgiven, if you would like to follow Jesus Christ from this point forward.

I'm also going to pray a second prayer. I know that some of you have begun to worship Jesus recently. But you haven't taken that other step of saying, "I want to confess with my mouth that I'm a follower of Jesus Christ. I want others to know that I've started to worship him." We're going to be filling the baptism tank pretty soon - yes, and heating it too - to give you an opportunity to stand before others and say, "Yes, I'm worshiping Jesus." It's commanded by Jesus as the way to begin your new life in him, and to physically demonstrate the commitment you've made in your heart. I'm going to give you an opportunity to respond in a few minutes to say, "Yes, I want to be baptized. I want to worship Jesus by being baptized and by following him. I can't think of a better time than Christmas to worship the one who came to forgive me."

Let's pray.

Father, we want to learn from the life of Herod. We certainly want to learn how to relate to people, and certainly Herod was good with people. Help us to truly love others - not to use them, but to genuinely love them. Help us to know how to relate to others; to our friends, our families, our neighbors.

Give us a lasting legacy. I pray that each of us will choose the legacy that lasts. Help us to truly love you and to love others. Help us to make love our highest goal.

If you would like to begin worshiping Jesus today, to receive the forgiveness that he came to offer, you can pray these words from your heart:

Father, thank you for sending Jesus Christ to live a perfect life. Thank you that he died for my sins, and that he rose again to give me new life. I believe in my heart that you raised him from the dead. I want to worship him, to live for him. I want to become a follower of Jesus Christ today.

If you've prayed that prayer, either today or recently, and you'd like the opportunity to be baptized this Christmas as a way of publicly confessing that you're following Jesus Christ, would you please pray these words:

Father, I want to be baptized this Christmas. I want to serve you. I want others to know how much I love you. May this be a Christmas to remember, because it's the Christmas that I publicly demonstrated my love for you. In the name of the one who came to save and forgive me, the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.