Holidays to Holy Days

Holidays to Holy Days

Isaiah 9:6-7 / Hebrews 4:14-16

Dr. Jim Denison

As you know, our mission teams returned from Cuba this past Tuesday and Wednesday. The week was for me the best of my five trips to the island. We are now working with three sister churches, and have an opportunity to help the Havana Baptist Seminary, now in its hundredth year, expand its ministry in very exciting ways. But that’s not what some of you heard about our trip.

Some of you heard that we were instructed by the Cuban government not to visit churches or do religious activities. This was no problem for us–we were able to bring benevolent aid and support, and do everything we went to do. But the edict did make for one memorable evening.

Saturday night we were eating with Oscar’s church when Oscar walked into the room and said, “We have a problem. Two immigration officials are downstairs. They say that you made illegal donations in the streets.” We made no donations in the streets, as that is indeed illegal in Cuba. But they had been told that we did. They wanted to see our leaders, so Jeff and I went downstairs with Oscar to meet with them.

Everything turned out just fine. They wanted us to leave Camaguey for Havana and return to the United States. We told them that we planned to do just that–to leave in the morning, and return on Tuesday and Wednesday as these were the first available flights.

They were fine with that. In fact, when we told the official that we had not been visiting church services because of the government edict, he told us that it was no problem for us to attend–just not to preach. So we got to go to church Sunday morning. I will always be grateful for that official.

But that’s not the memorable part. The part I’ll not forget is that while Jeff and I were downstairs, the rest of the team was upstairs praying for us. Oscar had said that we were accused of making illegal donations, so they began looking for every receipt and record of the week they could find. They shredded them like Enron executives. One team member had pictures on his digital camera documenting all we had done–he hid the chip in his shoe, and took pictures of the table instead.

Then they realized that one of them had the ministry training manual we always distribute. Or as a lawyer in the group called it, “Exhibit A.” It was too big to shred, so they burned it. All the while we were doing just fine downstairs with the Cuban officials.

But only because our Cuban brothers were with us. Jeff and I did not know the customs or politics of the situation. He knows Spanish, but I don’t. Our translator and pastor friends made the conversation possible, and gave us the guidance we needed. As a result, we had my best week in Cuba.

Where do you need such a counselor today? What problem has followed you into worship this morning? On this Advent week of peace, what is keeping you from peace? Where could you use a Wonderful Counselor right now?

Why does Christmas matter?

Preparing for this series, I realized that I have never considered ways Jesus’ birth might be significant as an end and not just a means. Not just as the reason for wonderful holidays and gift-giving, or as the first step to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but as an event of crucial importance itself. Why does it matter? What is true because of Christmas, and would not be true otherwise?

As I thought about that question, I came to this simple but significant answer: because of the Incarnation, the God of the universe is available to me today. He’s not a Zeus atop Mt. Olympus, or Allah living unmoved and removed in heaven, or an impersonal Brahman or life force. He is one of us, available to us, with us, right now.

Try seeing the president or governor or mayor about your property tax bill. Avery Johnson is probably not available to help you coach Upward Basketball this month; Bill Parcells may not be able to help you with your fantasy football choices this weekend.

But the God who made this planet is Immanuel, “God with us.” We could not climb up to him, so he climbed down to us. And now all the wisdom and power of the Maker of the universe is available to us, this morning.

As I considered the specific ways the Incarnation matters, Isaiah’s prediction came to mind: he would be our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Each of these is available to us because of Christmas, and only because of Christmas. Let’s accept the first of these four invitations today.

Why Jesus is a Wonderful Counselor

“Wonderful” in the Hebrew means “so full of wonder as to be miraculous.” “Counselor” points to a person of such wisdom that he can advise kings, the wisest man in the land. The words together can be rendered, “He who plans wonderful things.”

Such was Isaiah’s first name for the baby of Bethlehem. And he was right: when he was only twelve, “all who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). When he taught the people, “they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom?'” (Matthew 13:54). Paul claimed that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

And now all this wisdom is available to us, because of Christmas. Everyone knows that the best counselor is the person who has been where you are. When my father died, Linda Sharp was my best help because she had lost her father the previous year. When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer back in Midland, those who had survived colon cancer were our best encouragers. Those of you who have been through the pain of divorce are best encouraged by those who have survived such pain and loss.


Peace Is the Absence of Fear

Peace Is the Absence of Fear

Isaiah 9:6-7 / Luke 2:8-14

Dr. Jim Denison

There is good news for our hectic world: scientists have determined that our earth is spinning more slowly with each passing day. In merely 200 million years, a day will have 25 hours in it; in 400 million years, we’ll have 26 hours in a day. Just think what you’ll be able to do with the added time.

In the meanwhile, we need peace for our hectic and troubled hearts.

This Christmas week, our president appeared on national television to report on the war in Iraq, as casualties mount and criticisms escalate. Counterfeit bird flu drugs were seized a few days ago in San Francisco. The Senate continued its debate over the Patriot Act. Spain arrested 15 al-Qaeda recruiters in that country.

Whatever you would say about the times in which we live, you would not say that they are filled with peace. To such a world Jesus came to be our Prince of Peace. On the first Christmas the angels announced “peace among those with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14). Where do you need such peace in your life and soul this Christmas Day? Peace in the year to come?

Today’s sermon in a sentence comes from a friend’s recent statement to me: “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of fear.” How can we experience that peace which banishes fear today?

Name your fear

On the first Christmas Day, the first people invited to the celebration were shepherds in the field. When the angel of the Lord appeared to them, “they were filled with fear.” Luke’s Greek actually says “they feared a mega fear.” The NIV says they were “terrified.” The English Standard Version says they were “filled with fear”–the translation indicates that they had room for no other emotions but fear.

The dictionary defines the English word “fear” as “a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger.” The Greeks were more specific. Their word is phobos; we get “phobia” from it. The word may have originally meant “hair-raising.” Phobos in the ancient world meant to be terrified, to be put to flight, to be so afraid that you fear for your life.

I didn’t know until studying the text this week that this is the only time in the Bible when people respond to an angelic visit with mega phobia, “great fear.” Why?

You know that the shepherds were among the lowest class in their society. They so often stole from their employers that you could not buy from them. They were so infamous for lying that they could not testify in a court of law. They did not observe kosher dietary laws, cleanliness regulations, or any other religious dictates for that matter, so they could not attend a synagogue or Temple service.

We don’t have anyone like them in our culture today. But if you knew someone who was so immoral and irreligious that he was not allowed to go to church, you’d know a shepherd. There were the most irreligious people in their world.

Now it makes more sense that they would be “filled with fear” upon seeing “the glory of the Lord.”

Imagine an employee stealing from the cash register when the boss walks up behind him, or a student using her cell phone to cheat on a test when the teacher looks over her shoulder, or an adulterer talking on the phone with his girlfriend when his wife picks up the other line. The one time I cut class in high school, I was driving down Bissonnet Street in Houston with some friends when who should drive by the other way but my mother. Dinner that night was less than enjoyable.

Imagine that you’ve rejected the word and will of God for years, and not darkened the door of a church building since you were a kid, and suddenly an angel of the Lord shows up at your office. How would you feel?

If God could give peace to the most irreligious people in the New Testament, what can he do for your soul this morning? In what way are you a shepherd today? What fear has burrowed its way into your soul? What is stealing your peace? Name your fear; admit your burden or worry or discouragement. And know that the Prince of Peace has come for shepherds the world over, including you.

Make God your Father

Given that the shepherds were paralyzed with terror, it is no surprise that the first word the angel would speak would be, “Fear not.” Literally, “stop being afraid.” It’s a command in the Greek. That’s as far as the ancient world could go with fear–stop it. The Stoics and Epicureans, Aristotle and Plato were all convinced that fear was a bad thing. But they had no idea what to do with it except to refuse it. Stop being afraid.

But that’s a little like telling a soldier about to make his first parachute jump to stop being nervous, or a man about to undergo open heart surgery not to worry. Saying it doesn’t make it so. We’re all shepherds today, in need of the peace of God for our fears, doubts, worries, and burdens. What do we do to find the peace of God where we need it most?

First, we make God our Father. We step into that personal relationship with him through which he gives us his peace. He cannot give what we are not close enough to receive. If the shepherds could become the children of God, so can you.

The angel was clear on this: “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.”

“I bring”–this remedy for fear comes from God, not man, so you can trust it. It is the Greek word for evangelizing or preaching, and could be rendered “I proclaim as the word of God.”


The Baby Who Made His Cradle

The Baby Who Made His Cradle

Isaiah 9:6-7 / Colossians 1:15-20

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re talking today about the power of power. The most recent BusinessWeek features the latest electronic gadgets: a cell phone which surfs the web, takes pictures, plays music, and makes video calls; a camera a which seamlessly connects to a Wi-Fi network at home and on the road to email photos to friends; golf balls which come imbedded with computer chips, and a device to find them when they’re lost; a device you can connect to your television which beams the broadcast over the Internet to your PC anywhere in the world. But none of them are any good without an old fashioned electrical socket.

Last week we learned that the Christ of Christmas is our Wonderful Counselor. But the best counselor is the one who advises you, then gives you the power to do what he says. Where do you need a Mighty God this morning?

Jesus’ power before Christmas

Jesus was the only baby who created his parents. He was the only newborn who created the place where he was laid. He was the only child who created the adults who celebrated his birth.

He made our world before he stepped into it at Christmas: “By Jesus all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).

Then he stepped into the world he created, in power. I made a list of his miracles, in approximate chronological order: He turned the water to wine, healed the nobleman’s son, helped the disciples make a miraculous catch of fish, freed a demoniac, healed Peter’s mother-in law, cleansed a leper, helped a paralytic walk, healed a lame man, restored a withered hand, healed a centurion’s servant, raised a widow’s son to life, healed another demoniac, calmed a storm, healed the Gadarene demoniacs, raised Jairus’ daughter to life, healed the woman with the issue of blood, gave blind men their sight, healed another demoniac, fed the 5,000, walked on the sea, healed the Syrophoenician daughter, fed the 4,000, healed the deaf and mute person, gave another blind man sight, healed a lunatic child, provided tribute money in a fish’s mouth, healed ten lepers, healed the man born blind, raised Lazarus to life, healed the woman with infirmity, healed the man with dropsy, healed more blind men, cursed the fig tree, healed the high priest’s servant, and helped the disciples make another miraculous catch of fish.

And of course, there was the matter of the resurrection and ascension. All that he did after Christmas. All that he can still do today, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

He will one day return to our planet in even greater power. On that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). His first Advent points to his second, when his power rules all that is.

Jesus’ power because of Christmas

Now, what is true about Jesus’ power because of Christmas, and would not be true otherwise? Here’s what Christmas says about the Mighty God: now his power can dwell in us. The God who created the universe has proven that he can and will enter the human condition.

Not just that he can work for us, but that he can work in us. Not just that he can visit our planet, but that he can indwell our bodies and lives.

We can now be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. God can indwell human flesh, at Christmas and today. His power can be as real in and through our lives as when he walked the planet himself.

Here’s what that power means to your life, practically.

You have power over temptation: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). There is no sin you must commit, because the Christ of Christmas lives in power in you.

You can overcome Satan: “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14). The power which defeated Satan at the grave will defeat him again in your life.

You have power to take the gospel to the entire world: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The power to win the world to Christ lives in you.

You have the power to pray effectively: “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

You have power to see the sick healed: “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). God will answer your prayer and give the sick person what you ask or something even better.

In short, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). At Christmas, the Mighty God proved that he could live in human flesh. He still can.

Conclusion

But someone is asking: if that’s true, why don’t I defeat temptation more easily? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers as powerfully as he answered Jesus’ prayers? How do we experience the Mighty God each day? By following the example of his Son, our Lord.