Love All Lovely, Love Divine

Pastor Sherry’s message for December 19, 2021

Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a; Lk 1:46b-55; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-43

Two weeks ago, Bonnie chose one of my favorite hymns for Advent: Love Came Down at Christmas, a poem by Christina Rosetti (1874-1948), set to an Irish melody🡪

Love came down at Christmas.

Love all lovely, love divine;

Love was born at Christmas,

Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,

Love incarnate, love divine;

Worship we our Jesus,

But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,

Love be yours and love be mine.

Love to God and neighbor,

Love for plea and gift and sign.

This hymn reminds us that our God is love! That the way He responds to us is always motivated by His love. That Jesus’ birth and later His death on the Cross for our sakes were both manifestations of God’s great love for us. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is hesed and means God’s faithful, long suffering, loyal love for us. In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent is agapeo.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent and we lit the 4th candle of the Advent Wreath, the one that signifies love, God’s hesed, God’s agapeo for us. It is to be expected, then, that our Scriptures today all emphasize different perspectives on God’s love—and they do.

A. Written some 700 years prior to Jesus’ birth, our Old Testament lesson comes from the prophesies of Micah (5:2-5a). God the Father authorized Micah to tell Israel (and us) that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. We recall from the Nativity Narrative that:

1.) Caesar Augustus had authorized an empire-wide census to be taken so as to aid with government taxation.

2.) Everyone was to journey to their birth-place to be counted. I was born in Seattle. I would have had to journey there from N. Florida at my own expense—no per diem for help with meals and accommodations, no money for gas. You can see how onerous a requirement this would have been.

3.) However, this decree accounted for Mary and Joseph’s travels from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. This is a distance today—given paved highways—of about 97.5 miles or 2 hours by car. On foot and by donkey, it probably took 4.5 to 5 days. Mary was then 8.5-9 months pregnant! YIKES! Imagine the discomfort! Mary and Joseph were certainly braver than most of us would have been. But given God’s protection and provision, they completed the journey just before the baby arrived.

Additionally, God declares (v.2) Out of you [Bethlehem] will come for Me One who will be ruler over Israel, Whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. This Jesus will arrive from heaven, incarnate, as a dependent baby; nevertheless, as the 2nd person of the Trinity, He has always been and always will be God. It has been said that at His birth, Jesus who was already in existence in heaven, “clothed Himself in humanity.”

Like the Malachi prophesy from 2 weeks ago, Micah foretells the fact that, due to God’s silence for 400 years, (v.3)🡪Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth….

God will (and did) break His silence at the birth of Jesus. Furthermore, when Messiah returns a 2nd time, all of Israel [and all believers in Jesus] will be gathered together. At His 2nd Coming, Jesus (v.4) …will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God.

What Great Good News! At that time, we will live in safely and security. When I moved to Live Oak, Florida, in 1975, most people left their cars and their back doors unlocked. Car keys were often found on the dash or the car console somewhere. Most felt very secure that no one would steal their vehicle or break into their home. We will return to that state when Christ comes again. Jesus will rule in such a way that He will provide us with everlasting peace. Isn’t this truly a message of God’s love?!

B. Our Gospel lesson, Luke 1:39-43, relates Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s arrival at her home. But first, let’s recall the “backstory” to this event: Back in verse 26, we are told that the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she is to bear God’s Son. She is thought to have been somewhere between 14-18 years old. She was a virgin, betrothed or pledged to Joseph, but not yet having had conjugal relations or living as man and wife (unlike the practices common today).

Gabriel tells her, “Greetings! You who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Those of you from a Roman Catholic background will recognize the first lines of the “Hail Mary Prayer,” Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” We can only surmise that Mary felt some mix of fear, wonder, and confusion. After all, angels are said to be very large and tend to appear suddenly. The angel hastens to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end”

I am always amazed that her only question was one of mechanics: “How will this be? How can I become pregnant without a man? Or even, “How will the divine mix with the human? God become a baby?” Gabriel replies to her, “Nothing is impossible with God!” We should repeat this daily, “Nothing is impossible with God!” Her beautiful response is one of humility and obedience: “I am the Lord’s servant…may it be to me as you have said.”

Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. Wouldn’t you have been overwhelmed? “Whoa, what an honor! I’ve been chosen to bear God’s Son!” But then wouldn’t your next immediate thought be, but I’m not married…how will I explain this to…Joseph, the neighbors, my mother and father?!! At that time, the Law said the penalty for fornication (having sex outside of marriage) was the stoning of both parties. Mary was actually in danger, not just of disapproval and gossip, but of being executed. The Earthly Reality looked grim!

But in verse 36, Gabriel tells her that her older cousin Elizabeth is pregnant too, in her 6th month. Gabriel has suggested a reprieve, a time out for her. She can leave town before she starts to show, and soak up on some love and nurturing from someone who will understand and not condemn.

This is the focus of our passage today: Elizabeth is so glad to see her that she proclaims in verse 42, Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear! [the second line of the “Hail Mary Prayer,” Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”]. But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth immediately affirms that all Gabriel told Mary is true. She will bear the Messiah. As a sign of this, John the Baptist leaps in her womb. No matter the earthly circumstances, the Heavenly Reality is GREAT JOY!!! Consequently, Mary is encouraged and affirmed by someone who shares her awe and delight.

Mary experiences God’s love for her through His choice of her as the theotokis, the God-bearer, and by her cousin’s reassurance, warmth, and faith.

C. The writer to the Hebrews (10:5-10)wants us to clearly realize that Jesus, like his mother Mary—and his step-father Joseph—was an obedient servant of His Heavenly Father. This passage attributes to Jesus the words from Psalm 40:6-8–Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings You were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about Me in the scroll—I have come to do Your will, O God.’

In other words, Jesus came into the world to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. His death on the Cross once-and–for-all paid the price for our sins.

There is no further need to offer up animal sacrifices to cleanse us from sin.

The animal sacrifice only covered the most recent sins. Later, after sinning again, more animals would have to be sacrificed. But one Jesus did it all for everyone for all time! What a perfect gift of love!

D. We know from Luke 1: 26-45 that Mary was humble and obedient. Her behavior provides an excellent example for us of what love for God compels us to do. In our psalm-like, New Testament song, Luke 1:46-55, we see her humility demonstrated yet again in her song of praise, the Magnificat. Notice: We would expect the whole psalm to say, “YIPPEE, God picked ME!” This was every Jewish girl’s dream. And she does briefly rejoice in God’s choice of her. But then she proceeds to glorify God for what He is doing through her for His people! She takes the focus off herself and sets it upon God’s activity. She praises Him for (1.) His mercy to those who respect and revere Him; (2.) His past works of power; (3.) His surprising, unexpected propensity to reverse worldly fortunes: The lowly are raised up, while the lofty are brought low; the hungry are fed while the well fed are not. (4.) His fulfillment of His promises (going back to Genesis 12 and 22) to Israel: A king from the lineage of David, and a Messiah who will bless all nations on earth.

Love was born at Christmas: Christ Jesus, God’s gift of love and salvation to the world. Love was carried for us by a poor young woman of amazing faith, strength, and humility. Love was demonstrated for us by Jesus’ willingness to atone (take on the penalty) for our sins. Love was also revealed for us in Mary’s attitudes toward God. As we approach Christmas Day, let us take our focus off ourselves and place it where it best belongs…On our worship of the Godhead, the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Love all lovely, love divine!

©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

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Re-JOY-ce!

Pastor Sherry’s message for December 12, 2021

Scriptures: Zeph 3:14-20; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:7-18

Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told the following story: “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” (source unknown)

Have you ever noticed that this is the way our God often answers prayer? The results appear to be instantaneous, but God had the request in mind—and answered it–even before someone asked. We have learned this often happens with the Christmas shoeboxes we so recently packed and shipped. My favorite example is of the young boy who wanted a black t-shirt and a black hat, and was overjoyed to find one in his gift box. (I would not have thought to send a black pair, but a hat and shirt that was colorful. Instead someone packed just what this child wanted and God saw to it that he was the one who received that shoe box. And isn’t it true that we who prayed are often shocked, amazed, and filled with joy when we witness how God has answered our prayers?

In discussing God’s answers to prayers, Bill Hybels, in his book, Too Busy Not To Pray (IVP, 2008, p.74), writes:

If the request is wrong, God says, “No!”

If the timing is wrong, God says, “Slow.”

If you are wrong, God says, “Grow.”

But if the request is right, the timing is right and you are right, God says, “GO!”

Hybels obviously believes God always answers our prayers; He just doesn’t always answer them in the way we desire.

Our Scripture passages, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, all revolve around God’s response to the prayers of believers. Remember, today we lit the candle representing “Joy,” the joy the shepherds experienced when the angel choirs told them Messiah had arrived.

A. The prophet, Zephaniah (3:14-20), foretells Jesus’ 2nd Coming as a warrior God! When Christ returns, at some unknown future date, He will have the authority to set all things right! This will not be “Jesus, Meek and Mild.” Instead, He will come back to earth in all of his kingly glory. The first time He came, it was as a poor baby, born to a homeless couple. But when he comes back, it will be as the all-powerful King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

Zephaniah wants his Jewish audience–and us–to know we will then have nothing to fear! Non-believers will be shaking in their boots as they face judgment; but we who love Jesus will experience great joy! In verse 17, Zephaniah predicts we will never again be afraid or anxious! How wonderful is that?! Instead, we will experience God’s delight with us. It will be as if we are infants in His arms, as He quiets us with His love, and rejoices over us with singing. When has anyone rejoiced over you with singing? Maybe your mom or dad sang lullabies over you as a child, or perhaps people sing for your birthday, but otherwise, it isn’t often than anyone sings over us. But imagine, the Great God of the Universe will do this with each of us who has asked Jesus into her or his heart.

At His 2nd Advent, our long-prayed-for and triumphant Jesus will gather us and restore us. He will eliminate evil, sorrow, and all of our burdens. I believe He will explain for us the purpose of our trials and suffering on this earth. And He will raise us up to honor and fame!

Isn’t this the ultimate prayer of all of us? Come Lord Jesus, make all things new, including us. Heal us, restore us, help us to rest in Your love and Your peace.

B. The message of Isaiah 12:2-6 is very similar. In that day, the time of Jesus’ 2nd Advent, [we will] (vv.2-3)…trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Our response to Jesus will be great joy! We will be so overflowing with gratitude, that we’ll be saying (as per Peterson’s Bible paraphrase, The Message, p.1228), verses 5-6🡪 Give thanks to God. Call out His name. Ask Him anything! Shout to the nations, tell them what He’s done, spread the news of His great reputation! Sing praise-songs to God. He’s done it all! Let the whole earth know what He’s done! Raise the roof! Sing your hearts out, O Zion! The greatest lives among you: The Holy One of Israel.

C. Paul’s message in Philippians 4:4-7 encourages us to act as if we believe in the prophesies of Zephaniah and of Isaiah. Since we trust that Jesus will grab us up in a joyous celebration at His 2nd Coming, we can (vv.4-5) Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!…The Lord is near. As we await Him, we want to put away all of our anxiety, our worry. Stated another way, Paul appears to be saying, Worry about nothing, pray about everything! That’s worth saying again: Worry about nothing, pray about everything! If you are afraid your prayer request– including parking places near the door to a store when it rains–is too little a thing to bother God about, remember that to God, every concern we have is a little thing! (not in value, but compared to His power).

Daily, we can send all of our worries to the Cross of Christ. That’s where they belong. Jesus is the only One who can redeem and transform them for us. So we present our requests to God with prayer and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, because we know He hears us. Thanksgiving, because we know His answer will be either “No,” “Slow,” “Grow,” or “Go!”

Then because we have off-loaded our concerns to Jesus, we feel His peace come over us. It’s …the peace that passes all understanding (v.7) because it’s not dependent upon our circumstances–whether external to us, like jobs, relationships, news events, etc.–or internal circumstances, like our feelings, attitudes, health, and so on. It is dependent only upon our relationship with Jesus Christ.

D. Our Gospel lesson today, Luke 3:7-18, lands us right in the middle of John the Baptist’s sermon. He’s not a cuddly character, is he? He shoots form the hip and tells it like it is: Repent! Turn from pride, arrogance, greed, extortion, dishonesty. Ask God’s forgiveness for your sins. Be baptized with water, as an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual truth: that we have been cleansed from our sins and have made a decision to behave differently. John the Baptist also exhorted the crowds coming to him to treat others with generosity, love, and respect. He was not Jesus, but only the forerunner to Messiah. He baptized with water. But Jesus baptized us with the Holy Spirit in His 1st Advent, and will baptize us with the fire of judgment in His 2nd.

For centuries, God the Father had had His prophets announce that Jesus was coming. John the Baptist says, Well, He’s here! Get ready! Be prepared! And, while you are at it, be ready for the Return of the King!

We can rest assured that our Lord is returning to earth to restore us and our world. We can trust that our Lord hears and responds to our prayers.

Listen to this very earnest call to prayer by a famous American leader:

Knowing that intercessory prayer is our mightiest weapon and the supreme call for all Christians today, I pleadingly urge our people everywhere to pray. Believing that prayer is the greatest contribution that our people can make in this critical hour, I humbly urge that we take time to pray–to really pray. Let there be prayer at sunup, at noonday, at sundown, at midnight–all through the day. Let us all pray for our children, our youth, our aged, our pastors, our homes. Let us pray for our churches. Let us pray for ourselves, that we may not lose the word ‘concern’ out of our Christian vocabulary. Let us pray for our nation. Let us pray for those who have never known Jesus Christ and redeeming love, for moral forces everywhere, for our national leaders. Let prayer be our passion. Let prayer be our practice. (Robert E. Lee).,

As we pray, we want to do so with the confidence of a long-ago professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Harry Ironside. In its early days, the school needed $10,000 to remain open. During an emergency prayer meeting, Ironside prayed, “Lord, you own the cattle on a thousand hills. Please sell some of those cattle to help us meet this need.” Shortly after the prayer meeting, a check for $10,000 arrived at the school, sent days earlier by a friend who had no idea of the urgent need or of Ironside’s prayer. The man simply said the money came from the sale of some of his cattle!

I love stories like this! They deepen our faith and our trust in our Lord! We can be confident that, as believers in Jesus, we can await His 2nd Coming with re-joy-cing!

©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

Preparing our Hearts

Pastor Sherry’s message for December 5, 2021

Scriptures: Mal 3:1-4; Lk 1:68-79; Phil 1:3-11; Lk 3:1-6

What are your favorite “signs”/symbols of Christmas? My two particular favorites are the Advent Wreath and the music of Handel’s “Messiah.” Last week, we lit the first candle on our Advent wreath. The wreath is circular, signifying the eternality of God, or God’s endless love and mercy. The wreath is formed of evergreens, a symbol of our hope in God (newness of life; renewal; and eternal life). The outer four candles remind us of the 400 years from the prophesies of Malachi until birth of Jesus. In those years, God was essentially saying to the Hebrew people, “You have not listened to Me. Now I won’t say anything more (until Jesus).” There are 3 purple or white candles, which signify the following:

1st The Prophesy Candle, Messiah is Coming, which speaks of Hope;

2nd The Bethlehem Candle, signifying the Birth of Christ, and our need to Prepare our hearts for Him.

4th The Angel Candle which denotes Love. There is also 1 rose or pink candle. The third Candle, also called the Shepherds Candle, which indicates the Joy the shepherds felt at the birth of Jesus. The large, white candle in the center of the wreath signifies Christ. It reminds us that Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God; the light of the world; and the reason for the season. As the candles are lit, we symbolically note how the darkness recedes, and remember that we are called to be the light of God’s grace to a darkened and weary world.

My other favorite signal of Christmas is the music of Handel’s “Messiah.” Our Old and New Testament lessons this morning comprise a tenor and a bass aria, which you may recognize. Handel, a devout student of Scripture, set these verses to music in about 23-24 days. Modern psychology believes Handel was experiencing a manicy high as he wrote his massive and impressive “Messiah,” including music for both instrumentation and for voices. We believers know Handel was not a Bipolar, but was downloading gorgeous music given to him by the Holy Spirit, and he probably wrote it down as quickly as he was able. Clearly, he wisely understood the purpose of Jesus’ 1st Coming was to rescue/save His people; and, by demonstrating God’s saving love for them, to bring them comfort and reassurance. He also knew that when Christ comes again, He comes to judge the people of the earth, separating out the clean from the unclean.

Thus, the Second Sunday of Advent reminds us of the message of John the Baptist, the forerunner/proclaimer of Jesus: “Prepare your hearts! Stop! Pay attention! Get right with God!” Let’s see how these themes are present in the Scripture passages appointed for today:

A. Our OT lesson is from Malachi (3:1-4), the final book before the recording of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. This is God’s final word to humankind prior to 400 years of silence. The prophet proclaims that just before the public ministry of the Messiah, a prophet will come on the scene to prepare folks to receive Him. All four Gospels reference this Malachi passage. So, we are left with no doubt that the 1st messenger is John the Baptist. His preaching about repentance and his call to folks to be baptized were meant to help people get their hearts ready to receive Jesus, ourSavior at His first Advent.

But even before the end of his first verse, Malachi also declares a …messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come…. This is Jesus, the Righteous Judge, who will appear suddenly at the end of times.

He will return to earth a 2nd time, as our Sovereign Lord. Malachi asks (v.2), Who can endure the day of His [2nd] coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiners’ fire or a launderer’s soap. His mission then will be to judge and to purify us. The only ones who will be able to stand in the presence of God and live, according to PS 24:3, are those who have…clean hands and a pure heart, and who have not sullied themselves with idol worship. If we had not been cleansed with the blood of Jesus—shed on the cross for us—we would not be able to meet this important criteria. But because, by believing in Jesus, we are covered by His righteousness, we will one day stand before, and live, in the presence of Almighty God.

Malachi’s message is one which reminds us to be prepared, to ready our hearts by inviting Jesus to be King on the throne of our lives.

B. Instead of a psalm, this morning, we are treated to a song of praise sung by the priestly father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79)!

Remember, Zechariah was struck mute by the angel when he did not believe God would empower him to father a son as an elderly man. He was praying, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple—praying for the sins of Israel, and no doubt asking for a son—when the angel appeared with the answer to his prayers. He was no doubt so startled and amazed at the sight of the angels that he lost about 50 IQ points! He expressed unbelief and earned 9 months of silence as a result. He only recovered his speech when he affirmed that his infant son was to be named John.

In his song, he first rejoices that God is sending a Redeemer, out of the dynasty of King David. This Redeemer (Jesus) will…

1.) Provide salvation for God’s people;

2.) Show us God’s mercy;

3.) Demonstrate God’s covenant relationship with us;

4.) and Enable us to serve God without fear due to Jesus’ holiness and righteousness. Finally, and only at the end of his song, he declares that John the Baptist, his son, will be a prophet of the Most High. We can well imagine that Zechariah feels honored. We can tell that Zechariah rejoices in the fact that God’s rescue of His people is immanent.

C. In our Philippians 1:3-11 text, Paul reminds us of this very essential fact: He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will continue to work in us—if we allow Him to—to transform us into the best we can become. This is the second half of the Gospel. The first half is very big: Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. But the second is also important and involves our willingness to cooperate with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus loves us just as we are, but He also loves us too much to leave us that way.

In that light, Paul also prays that we might (1) abound in love, knowledge and discernment; (2) make wise decisions in the way we live so that we are ready for Christ’s 2nd Coming; and (3) be filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22):…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

D. Finally, in our Gospel lesson from Luke 3:1-6, John the Baptist himself, calls us to prepare for Christ. Notice how carefully Dr. Luke places John the Baptist in time: He dates his appearance on the historic scene by placing him in the context of non-Jewish governmental leaders from AD 25-26:

1.) Pontius Pilot, the Roman Prefect (military governing power);

2.) Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee (1 of 4 to take control over a quarter each of Alexander’ the Great’s empire after his death— Archaelaus was already dead);

3.) Leaving Herod, Philip (his brother), Tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitus;

4.) and Lysanias, Tetrarch of Abilene. Luke also places him during the high priesthood of Annas (out of favor w/ Rome but still pulling the strings) and Caiaphus, his son-in-law.

Then Dr. Luke makes sure we realize that the word of God Himself came to John the Baptist out in the wilderness (west of the Jordan). This recalls the 40 years wandering of the children of Israel, in the wilderness between Egypt and Israel, as God formed them into a nation. And later, Jesus will spend 40 days in John’s wilderness, strengthening His identity, understanding His mission, and deepening His faith and trust in His Father.

This poses the question, what is our wilderness? And are we using it to strengthen and deepen our faith and trust in God? But, this is a sermon for another day!

JtB then embarks on his ministry, calling folks to repentance; readying them to receive God’s forgiveness; and helping them to realize they/we need a Savior. Dr. Luke refers to Isaiah 40:3-5, which Handel so beautifully set to music—and sung so well this morning–in the 1st tenor aria of his “Messiah.” John’s role was to call us to prepare our hearts for Jesus. Just as crooked roads are straightened and rough spots are filled in and smoothed out, we are to ready ourselves morally and spiritually to welcome Jesus.

Advent is a season of expectant Hope! Advent fairly shouts, Don’t give up! Our God makes good on His promises! Jesus is coming a first time to redeem us. He will come a second time to make all things right. He will overcome all the “bad actors” in the world. He will usher in His peaceful kingdom. He will set all accounts right. So we want to be prepared. We want to live in a way that mimics the behavior of Jesus. We want to exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We want to express our gratitude, joining with St. Paul in saying, Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia, alleluia!

©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams