A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sermon (January 4) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "By a Different Road"

     Beginning a new year is both exciting and maybe even a little scary. There’s always the hope that the New Year will be better than the previous year.
     That’s why we eat sauerkraut on New Year’s Day, right? It’s supposed to bring us good luck.
     Evidently, the Wise Men forgot to eat sauerkraut when they visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Everything started out wonderful. They had finally arrived after a very long and difficult journey to present their gifts to the newborn King.
     That must have been such a high moment for them. We are told that they bowed down and worshipped the Christ Child. That had to have been a very special time for them.
     Matthew doesn’t even give us a chance to savor this joyous once in a lifetime moment with the Wise Men. The happiness only lasts one verse before real life sets in again.
     Matthew spoils this serene moment of worship by reminding us about Herod. Remember him? He’s the ruler who has been going to great lengths to do away with this new born king who would threaten his kingdom.
     Sensing that their lives were in danger due to the fact that they were acknowledging someone other than Herod being the true king, instead of returning to Herod, Matthew tells us that they returned by a different road. As we begin this New Year together, I wonder if there is a different road that God has in mind for us to travel as well.
     Our church recently completed an Advent and Christmas Eve focus on “Reclaiming Christmas.” We focused on this theme because Christmas has become so commercialized that it has been easy to lose sight of its true meaning for our lives.
     At the heart of reclaiming Christmas is remembering that Christmas is not about our birthday. It’s about Jesus’ birthday.
     In our society, Christmas has become less and less about the good news of Christ coming into the world to bring transformation and it has become more and more about what’s in it for me. We live in a culture where Christmas has become so diluted that we can so easily miss out on how the good news of this season can make a positive difference in our lives.
     And so, over these past several Sundays, we have been doing something really radical. We have been making Christmas less about ourselves and more about Christ.
     One of the things we were encouraged to do this past month was to give us much to our Christmas missions offering as we do in buying presents for ourselves and for our loved ones. This ended up being a huge change in the way I prepare for Christmas. Sure, we still saved up money to buy Christmas presents but we also made this year’s Christmas mission’s offering a much higher priority than in past years.
     I think this was a real eye opener for many of us as we thought about how much we spend on gifts and how much we give to the work of Christ in the world. It really makes a difference when we remember that Christmas is about the birthday of Jesus and not about our birthday.
     So, we went down this different road in how we approach Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I shared with you the awesome news that thanks to your generosity, we will be able to fulfill our $25,000 commitment to Imagine No Malaria a year and a half early.  This is incredible news because this money will be used to save the lives of children who are dying from the preventable disease of Malaria.
     I have some more awesome news to share with you. Since Christmas Eve, more money has come in toward our Christmas missions offering. Not only will we make our $25,000 commitment a year and a half ahead of schedule, we are going to actually send in approximately $31,000, $6,000 above and beyond what we said we were going to give.
     But that’s not all. Our overall giving toward our Christmas Missions Offering this year is 63% higher than last year’s offering. OK, this is where you can applaud now!
     We have made great progress in reclaiming the true meaning of Christmas thanks to this reorientation of our priorities in how we spend our money around the holiday season. I was wondering if this new focus would dampen our Christmas spirit but from what I can see, it has really enlivened our church.
     How awesome it is for us to know that because of our gifts to the missions offering, our partner United Methodist Church in Lithuania will be blessed. How awesome it is for us to know that our gifts will help alleviate hunger in Africa and help people closer to home in Athens, Ohio through the Good Works Outreach ministry.
     And to top it all off…how awesome it is for us to know that our gifts will be able to purchase  mosquito nets which will end up preventing 3,100 children from dying from the preventable disease of Malaria! How awesome is that! You can applaud again.
     We have chosen to go down a different road this year for Christmas. It’s been a road where we have been reminded that Christmas is not about our birthday. It’s about Jesus’ birthday.
     At the heart of the Christmas story is the good news that God sent Jesus not just so that we can go to heaven when we die, but so that this world that God created and loves so much will be made new again. Every time we offer ourselves in the name of Christ to be a blessing to the world, we are reclaiming Christmas.
     But the journey of reclaiming Christmas is just the beginning. The Wise Men made the long journey to Bethlehem and even after they worshipped the Christ Child and offered their gifts to him, their journey was far from over.  They now needed to go home by a different road.
     If we have been seeking to reclaim Christmas this year by making it more about Jesus than about ourselves, it only makes sense that there will be a new road to take during this New Year. What does it mean for us to go by a different road like the Wise Men did so long ago?
     During these beginning days of the New Year, we are always encouraged to make New Year’s resolutions. That’s why diet books fly off store shelves and work out gyms are packed during the month of January. We know that eating sauerkraut on New Year’s Day alone won’t cut it. We need to establish some goals and priorities. Deep down, we know that what we really need is to travel down a different road.
     What if instead of only a Christmas road, it becomes a New Year road? Just think of the many ways God will be able to use us in this coming year? Just think of the potential of what our church can do and become if we all decide to go by a different road this year!
     This past November, I shared about an exciting new vision that is God is calling our church to pursue in 2015. This new vision is very simple. It’s a vision that will enable us to be more deeply devoted followers of Jesus Christ. It’s a vision that will lead our church into greater fruitfulness and faithfulness.
     This new vision consists of three simple words. Love, Grow, Serve.
     Love, Grow, Serve represents the different road that God is calling each one of us to travel as a church family this year. What do these three words mean for our church?
     Love stands for worship. Whenever we worship, we are reminded of just how much God loves us. The scriptures, the music, the message, and the prayers in worship help us to celebrate God’s love made known to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     This good news of God’s love is at the heart of whenever we gather for worship. Worship is also a time for us to respond to God’s incredible love. We respond by sharing God’s love with each other and with the people we encounter throughout the week.
     As we travel a different road in this New Year, let’s remember to make weekly worship a priority in our lives. Worship is an important way that we receive and share God’s love.
     This brings us to the word, “Grow.” If worship is an important way for us to receive and celebrate God’s love, learning is how we grow in that love.
     Think of worship as your heart and think of grow as your mind. God gave us a heart as well as a mind to learn and grow. How do we go about growing in our faith?
     This year, we are offering six core courses to help us grow in our faith. These include Christianity 101, Methodism 101, The Means of Grace, Making Sense of the Bible, Stewardship, and Spiritual Gifts.
     We are spreading these core courses out throughout the year. Some of these will be held twice a year. And we are also offering these classes on Sunday mornings here at the church as well as on Wednesday evenings out at Crossroads facility as part of our weekly Wednesday Fellowship Dinner program.
    We are really excited about these classes. Most of these classes are 3 to 8 weeks in length and the resources that are being used for these classes are tried and true. Our goal is for all 1,400 members of our church complete all six core courses! How’s that for setting the bar high? For those who complete all six core courses, you will get a gold star! Actually, we want to recognize everyone who complete all six of these courses.
     Our very first core course this year will begin next Sunday morning at 10:15 am here at our church. It’s the Bible Basics class. Pastor Cheryl will be the instructor.  This course will explain the overall theme of the bible, how the bible was formed, how the bible is organized, the historical context of when the bible was written, and how we can interpret it for our daily living.
     I want to thank our Director of Discipleship, Dan Kemp and Judy Hug for coordinating these courses as well as the instructors who are preparing to teach. Loving through worship and growing through study are two important parts of the new road that our congregation is traveling this year.
     This brings us to the word, “Serve.” Love, Grow, Serve.
     If love is connected to worship and grow is related to study, then serve is connected to what we are calling, “Life Groups” also known as “Small Groups.” Many of you might already be in a small group that meets on a regular basis. This year, we are encouraging everyone to join or form a life group through our church.
     What’s a “Life Group?” A life groups consists of 3 to 12 people who make a commitment to meet on a regular basis, maybe weekly, maybe twice a month, maybe monthly, and share their faith with each other.
     Life Groups are where we can share with each other how it is with our souls. They are designed to be safe places in sharing where we see Christ at work in our lives, share our joys and sorrows, and encourage each other through prayer.
     In addition to sharing groups, “Life Groups” are also focused on serving. We would like each Life Group to serve on a consistent basis. That might be by serving as a group through our Second Saturday outreach ministry, or by taking a turn to serve a meal at a homeless shelter, or by working the games at our annual Spring Extravaganza event, or some other way as decided by each Life Group.
     These Life Groups are share groups as well as serving groups. They are to be like mini-churches within the larger church. It’s in the Life Group, where we can be connected, share our faith, and serve in ministry through the church.
     If you think of worship as a heart and the core courses as your intellect, think of Life Groups as your hands. The Life Groups are how we encourage one another to serve in the name of Christ.
     On this Epiphany Sunday, we are reminded that the Wise Men needed to take a different road in order to continue along their faith journey. We too, are invited to take a different road this year.
     It’s a road that includes loving, growing, and serving. Let’s continue to take a different road for this New Year. It’s a road that will lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

     Sauerkraut will only take you so far. Happy New Year!


Judy said...

Excellent explanation of th eexciting direction for First Church in 2015!! Thank you for succinct and thorough description of Love-Grow-Serve!!

Robert McDowell said...

Thank you, Judy! Thank you for helping us to launch this exciting new vision for our church!