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Archive for the ‘Advent/Christmas’ Category

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 (NASB)

We have a way of changing the story, not just the Christmas story, but stories in general. This too, is what marks sinners. It happens every day, in editorial meetings, communications offices, courtrooms, lunch conversations, principals’ offices, telephone calls, press releases, leaks, history books and documentaries, and … The focus gets changed, facts are omitted, small details are exaggerated, emphases are shifted, fingers get pointed, personal and political agendas take hold and rearrange.

The birth of Christ, the incarnation of God, the redemptive plan of God centered in his Son Jesus Christ is a case in point. What has happened to Mary, the young woman whom God offered to become the mother of the Christ. We actually know precious little about her. How do you picture her? For the most part her story has been taken into three directions: 1. She is a demur young woman who is all but passive, holding up the baby Jesus to visitors and artist/photographers with a peaceful smile on her face. 2. She has been elevated to the status of semi-goddess. 3. She has been reduced to a fictional character in an utterly absurd religious story. All of these have changed the story.

Mary’s name means “obstinate, rebellious.” Her Old Testament name sake is Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was anything but a demur soul, but rather outspoken, strong-willed, and quick-witted. God clearly saw Mary for more than breeding stock with the right blood line, he, above anyone else, knew that this young woman knew how to think, had inner strength, had a faith willing to take risks, was honest, and didn’t need the limelight. God invited her into his story and she volunteered herself, her body, and her life for life. And she didn’t change the story, her story – others did. She let the story be about Jesus, her life be about Jesus.

So, this Christmas, what have you done with the story, the truth of Jesus? How much have you changed it? Have you dismissed it? Have you replaced it with your own narrative? Have you reduced it to sentimental movie tradition, to a leggy lamp and a Red Rider BB gun? Has it become about your family instead of God’s family?

“Jesus Christ came into our world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), that is the unchanged story of Christmas. You and I can respond to it like Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant, …” (Luke 1:38), and from then on let our lives be about Jesus Christ, or we can to decide to do what sinners do, change the story, but only one can actually save you.

Merry Christmas! Love you, Pastor Hans

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For from his (God’s/Christ’s) fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
John 1:16 (ESV, parenthesis mine)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts 20:35 (NIV)

If you are reading this pastor’s note it is safe to assume you awoke this morning. You also learned how to read sometime back, most likely because someone taught you. This means you have lived long enough to acquire the skill of reading and I am certain a few others as well. It also means you have had some opportunities, maybe many, and you will have more opportunities today. You also could have chosen not to read this p-note, but you didn’t (which makes me glad); no, you decided to read it, to give dergremanshepherd (the German Shepherd) a small voice in your life today. You have made lots of decisions like that throughout your life, and many of vastly more significance, and you will make more today.

The story of your and my life is a story of receiving, from its very inception until now, and it will remain so until the very end. It doesn’t matter whether we think we have received the short end of the stick, gotten the shaft, were born into bad circumstances, have suffered from injustice, are trapped in poverty, had few good breaks in life, … The very fact we are breathing today, that we have opportunities to make choices today, even if they seem limited, verifies that every single day we have opened our eyes we have received. This means that someone gave, someone was gracious to us, and none more so than God, than Jesus Christ, For from his (God’s/Christ’s) fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” John 1:16 (ESV, parenthesis mine).

The truth is there is no one who comes close to having given us as much as God, as Jesus has; there isn’t anybody from whom we have received more. You would think the whole world would line up each day to say, “Thank you,” to brag about the goodness and graciousness of God. So, have you? And have you accepted from God the gift he thinks you need the most, his son, Jesus Christ? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. John 3:16 (NIV). You and I need Jesus Christ because we not only need daily grace to survive in the temporal, but we need God’s grace even more for the eternal, in fact we are completely dependent on it.

All this receiving equips us and ought to transform us into givers. Many of you reading this p-note went to work today. One of the great things about work is getting paid (Can I get an “Amen!”), and one of the great things of getting paid is that it enables a receiver to be a giver, In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” Acts 20:35 (NIV). Let’s do that today, turn our receiving into giving, turn our receiving into thanksgiving and praise to God and Christ. Let’s not stop with today, let’s turn it into a lifestyle, like God who has been giving to us all our life.

To God be all glory. Merry Christmas, Pastor Hans

 

 

 

 

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I have double confession to make: 1. I am not good at giving gifts. I love to help, be generous, but gift-giving is not my spiritual gift. 2. I am not very good at receiving gifts either, a weakness for sure. I am way too German/Schwaebisch, which means I am terrible with “Kitsch,” useless, knick-knack, cheap stuff. When it comes to gifts the running joke and question in my family is whether I am going to take things back and exchange them. I am slowly improving, thanks to intensive tutoring by Susie (my wife, who is super good at the gift and receiving of gifts thing), but progress has been very slow.

Christmas is about giving and receiving, specifically God giving and us receiving. Above anything else, this Christmas would you think about, contemplate God giving us the ultimate gift (2 Corinthians 9:15) and your response to this gift of Jesus Christ.

However, before reflecting on God’s “indescribable gift,” Jesus Christ, think about everything else you have received from God. Let’s start from the very beginning. Your life, your first heartbeat, your first breath, all the way to this present moment is a gift from God. Your ability to laugh, cry, feel, do good, think, and chose, are all things God gave to you and me. The characteristics that make you you and me me, whether it is our tenacity, courage, boldness, tenderness, kindness, intelligence, handiness, …, are from God as well. The “lucky breaks,” the opportunities, the things you survived, can also be traced back to the giving heart of God. The fact is you and I have received from God all our lives, from the very beginning until now. It makes no difference whether you acknowledge this fact or sneer at it, it still stands as the truth; the only difference is that acknowledging it will make you grateful and not doing so will render you ungrateful, acknowledging it will cause you to have an increasing sense of responsibility towards God, disavowing it will cause you to be blind in your responsibility towards God. It is not a matter of whether you have received from God all your life but whether your life expresses your gratitude towards God.

Esau (Genesis 25-27, 25:34, 27:38) was born before his twin brother Jacob, which, in his ancient culture, meant he also got the significant firstborn rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, he could have cared less about these gifts from God (admittedly, it is often hard to think of responsibilities as gifts), so in a careless moment he literally sold his birthright for a pot of stew, for mere pocket change. And he regretted it bitterly when it was too late. How grateful and careful are you for and with all God has given you up to this point in your life?

Esau is not in lonely company when it comes to being ungrateful for what God gave him, being careless with what God entrusted to him, shirking the responsibilities God handed to him. He is not the only sinner, the only one who has blown it, the only one who exchanged God’s gifts for something far less. No, you and are sitting right next to him in this historical boat (Romans 3:23). Which brings us back to Jesus, back to Christmas, back to God’s greatest gift, the gift that can save sinners, the gift that can help ungrateful screwups like you and me find forgiveness, restoration, and salvation. But like all gifts, it won’t benefit you unless you receive it, in this case him, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, God the Son, the Savior of the world.  “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of Go” John 1:12 (NIV).

To God be all glory. Let’s get ready for Christmas, Pastor Hans

 

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Now the birth …. Matthew 1:18 (NASB)

 Before you can have a birth, you need conception and nine months’ worth of amazing development from a single cell to billions of cells organized in mindboggling complexity and endowed with a soul. All of it designed and overseen by God himself, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well” Psalm 139:13-14 (NASB).

Despite having watched videos of births in Lamaze class and on PBS, I was still unprepared for the birth of our first child. As they pulled him out I heard him take his first breath, make his first sound, and watched him turn from blue to pink. When they put him in my arms I couldn’t help but feel I was holding a little miracle in my hands. The second, third, and fourth time I was more prepared, but that feeling of holding a little miracle only grew stronger. However, the birth of Jesus Christ was a miracle of entirely different dimensions.

Back up nine months from “the birth,” zoom in on an obscure village called Nazareth in ancient Galilee, look for the carpenter shop, and there you find a happily engaged young man named Joseph, counting the days to his wedding. If you want to know where his fiancée (his “betrothed”) lives with her family you need to ask him for directions.

Fast forward a few weeks and go find Joseph again in his carpenter’s shop. He is clearly preoccupied, something is weighing on his mind, and it is not what he learned in Lamaze class or on PBS. If you could read his mind you would know that he is trying to break the engagement to Mary with as little fuss as possible. She told him that she is pregnant and he knows he is not the father. Her explanation that things are not what they seem and that she’s pregnant with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit makes no sense.

Since by now you know your way around Nazareth go back again a few months later and order some breakfast at Malachi’s Dinner and Bagel shop. Ask the waitress, Abigail, also known as “The Nazareth Daily News,” if she knows Joseph and Mary’s wedding date. Watch her scoot into your booth with her coffee pot in hand and listen to her tell you in a whisper that it turns out that little good girl Mary turned up pregnant and rumor has it Joseph isn’t the real father. “Can you believe that young fool is still willing to marry her when he could have almost any girl in town,” she says wagging her head. “Supposedly, he claims, God told him to her marry her anyway. And, sad to say, it sounds just like him. But if you ask me, that’s taking the whole God-fearing thing a bit too far,” she says while sliding out of your booth.

“So you liked Nazareth so much you had to come back eight months later, eeh?” You went by the carpenter shop but it had a “For Sale” sign in the window. So back to Abigail it is. “They went down South, Bethlehem I think, with her eight months pregnant, can you believe that. Fools I say! They don’t know a single soul down there. I tell you she is going to have that child down there, and then what?” she says shaking her head, “For the life of me I can’t figure out why either of their folks would let them,” and off she goes coffee pot in hand.

“I knew it; you’re already googling Bethlehem, aren’t you?” Abigail was right, by the time you get there Mary had that baby, in the middle of the night, in a strange little town, and in a barn no less. When you get to the barn you’re surprised to see that Joseph and Mary already have a bunch of visitors. Maybe Abigail wasn’t as right on as she thought she was. It’s a bunch of shepherds with a strange story of seeing the glory of God in the middle of the night and an angel telling them about this baby being born, and more importantly him being the Savior, the Christ, the Lord (Luke 2:8-20). You know what Abigail would say, “Don’t you know the only guys that drink more than fishermen are shepherds.” But these guys are sober, no doubt about it. They didn’t just witness a birth, but the birth, the miracle of the incarnation of God. They got to see more than the face of brand new baby, they got a glimpse of God.

How many babies were born the past week? Who knows? Each one is a precious life made in the image of God. Each one should be important and feel like a miracle to his or her parents, but it is not important for everyone to know about their birth or know their name. What is important is that you and I know about THE BIRTH, the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, whose name is Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas. Love you Pastor Hans

 

 

 

 

 

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See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”
Matthew 1:23 (HCSB)

 I tried to console her, but she informed me through her sobbing, “I just need my Mama.” Her older sister at her age was more demanding, “I want Mommy!” In either case Dad wouldn’t do, wasn’t the one needed or wanted.

Lovers know the feeling of, “I want to be with you forever and ever,” and often quickly change to, “I never want to see you face again!”

Some people you can’t wait to be with, while with others we are perfectly fine if they don’t show up. Some people’s presence is like a shot in the arm, an automatic lift, sheer joy, others are real challenges, drags, and some are pure downers. Some folks’ mere presence inspires, cause you to dare, to dream, while some cause you to doubt, to tip-toe, and at times feel like you are in a nightmare. With some you are overjoyed when they arrive, while with others you wonder, “When are they going to leave?”

It makes a difference who you’re with. You’d think people run to be with God, especially when he shows up “in the flesh,” when he takes the time to meet you on your turf. But the exact opposite is true, God it turns out is intimidating, challenging, and frightening t us, even when appearing as a baby. The Apostle Peter’s first encounter with Jesus Christ caused him to exclaim, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Think about it, how sexually promiscuous are you going to be with God right there? Would you throw your usually temper tantrum or would you exercise greater self-control with God next to you? How dishonest would you be in your business dealings with Jesus sitting right there at the table? Would the quality of your work improve working side by side with God? Would you treat your wife and children different in front of God? Would you clean up your mouth, be more patient, less full of it in the presence of God? How would your party plans change if you were certain that God would show up in the flesh? If Jesus were to be physically right beside us would there be a gap be between how he and we talk about and treat the poor, the immigrants, those with different skin colors, homosexuals, and even our enemies? Having God around stifles the sinners sinning. It is bothersome enough to have your conscience prick you, but when God’s right there our conscience wants to rejoice and do flips while our sin ducks and hides, wondering, “When is he going to leave?”

God is holy, glorious, perfect, even when compressed into human flesh that did not change. Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God incarnate, God with us, was tempted and tried – “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). God’s holiness, God’s glory, the light of his presence exposes sin, strips you, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable” Hebrews 4:13 (NLT). Jesus always has known what is every person’s mind and heart (John 2:25). Immanuel sees right through us, all our excuses, cover-ups, making jokes about our sinfulness, declaring God’s backwardness and our rightness, and our own wisdom and self-reliance evaporate in his presence. We are forced to choose to either worship him or reject him, to proclaim him or deny him, to genuinely follow him or settle for just being religious.

In spite of our qualms “God with us” is incredible God news. It means God has come looking for us, God deeply cares about us, God has made a way to be “with him,” and he is eternal. “He (Jesus Christ/God) came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” John 1:11-14 (NLT, parenthesis mine).

Merry Christmas, Pastor Hans

 

 

 

 

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And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (NASB)

Let me list some qualities and you put a name in the blank space following it: Generosity ________, Kindness _________, Genius _________, Mean _______, Love _______, Evil ________, Selfless ________, Bitter _______, Laughter _______, Sacrifice ________.

Let’s do the reverse, I throw out a name and you attach the quality that first comes to your mind as you read each one: Mom ________, Dad ________, Fidel Castro ________, George Washington ________, Mother Theresa ________, Dog the Bounty Hunter ________, Miley Cyrus ________, Adlof Hitler _________, Rosa Parks _______, Jesus Christ ________.

The point of this little exercise is that qualities can and are embodied by people and people embody qualities, although we might not necessarily agree with each other’s assessments and sentiments.

John the Apostle, who knew Jesus Christ personally, when writing his Gospel made sure that anyone who would ever read his Gospel would be absolutely clear about who Jesus Christ is: The very embodiment of God himself, the Incarnation of God, the very essence of self-existing life becoming flesh and dwelling among us. This is the reality of Christmas, the inexplicable humility and compassion of God, the Son of God stepping into space and time, which he created, in order to save sinful humanity, sinners like you and I.

John was keenly aware that the very people Jesus came to save would in their sinfulness declare Jesus merely one among many admirable people who embodied goodness of some kind at an extraordinary high level. He was aware that the opinions and valuations regarding Jesus Christ would be deeply divided. Thus he penned his Gospel so that when we read it we would be left with only one conclusion: The unmuddled and unassailable truth is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, God incarnate.

This is incredible good news for sinners like you and me who are both in bondage to sin, continually perpetuate sin, who cannot escape the consequences of their sin, and who have no hope of surviving God’s judgment of their sin. It is great news because it is God showing up at the front door of your and my life in order to save us from and out of that which you will never be able to extricate and save ourselves from. “Behold, I (Jesus Christ) stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” Revelation 3:20 (ESV).

Run to open your door to Jesus Christ.

To God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans

 

 

 

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If you are searching for that that last minute or super special Christmas gift you might want to consider having a star named for the person you have on your mind. You can choose between an “Ordinary Star” (from $19.95), and “Extra Bright Star” (from $39.95), or a “Binary Star” (from $64.95). If you want go all out with this idea you can go with the gift sets (from $74.95, $84.95, $124.94 respectively).  You could join 17,000 others who plunked their money down to have someone’s name attached to a real star by this independent, albeit unofficial, star registry. Yes, you could brighten someone’s Christmas Day, more accurately night, in a way they never imagined. And if you ever misplace or lose your “Star Deed” you can contact the good folks at STARNAME Registry.org and they will help you. I am sure the passing along of this ordinary, extra, or double “bright idea” will be another reason why you so value my Pastor’s Notes.

I wonder. How much money have stars generated over time? How many other clever star schemes have people come up with? Astrology is alive and well even today, and suckers are still being borne every day. But the stars themselves, the universe as a whole does declare truth, The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” Psalm 19:1 (NLT); “The heavens proclaim his righteousness; every nation sees his glory” Psalm 97:6 (NLT); “The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse (for not acknowledging and worshiping God)” Romans 1:19-20 (MSG, parenthesis mine).

Regardless of the tendency of sinful human nature to either exploit and pervert spiritual things or to disregard God and explain him away, the testimony of the stars stands, God is real, his power and wisdom are both incomprehensible and immense, we are accountable to him, and the most proper response to God is to love, worship, and obey him. “Jesus was born in 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 saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him’” Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT). That star was visible to anyone who cared to look, but it seems people came to vastly different conclusion and vastly different responses. Most wise men from eastern lands stayed home, kept peddling the same astrology they had for centuries, it is difficult to adjust yourself to spiritual truth. King Herod saw the very notion of a new king as a threat his godless world of politics and power, it is difficult to submit to divine authority. The Jewish elite and scholars did not want their personal, political, and religious world be turned upside down, so they also gave it no significance, it is difficult to take God at his word.

For this Christmas I challenge you to look up into the night sky and see and hear its declaration of God, to pursue spiritual truth, to lead you to worship. If you follow that path it will still lead you to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the ultimate revelation of God, the one who can save us from our sins.

Merry Christmas. Love you, Pastor Hans

P.S. If you are tempted to go the Star Registry website, RESIST! Instead look for ways to give those $20-100 or so to your church, a missionary agency, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, World Vision, Compassion International, or help someone in your community, or find a way to help the millions of refugees of our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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