The Favor of God

Life Worship Notes—December 26, 2013 

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’” Luke 1:46-48a

This passage from Luke is the beginning of one of the most widely read scripture passages during the Christmas season. The complete refrain (Luke 1:46-55) is referred to as Mary’s Song of Praise, or The Magnificat. It is Mary’s response to learning she is carrying the Son of God, the Messiah. Emmanuel, meaning God is with us, will be born through Mary. Being young, unmarried, and pregnant would not be good news to most women of her era. However, the angel Gabriel assured Mary she had been chosen to birth God’s son. The news fills her with joy, in spite of the challenges it will present. She believes it is a sign of God’s favor.

Mary’s place in history was secured by being the earthly mother of Jesus. Even so, God’s favor falls on all of us still today. When God chose to take on human flesh and walk among us, that adventure began as a baby, born of a human mother. It was a physical birth, the same way the rest of us began our earthly journeys. While Jesus’ birth through Mary was physical, Jesus’ birth in us is spiritual. God reaches out to us in Spirit; and when we reach back, Christ is born in us. We reach back to God by accepting the gift of Jesus and dedicating our life to his work and purposes. Emmanuel, the true gift of Christmas, is God with us. Once God is with us, God can work in and through us. The gift of Emmanuel is given freely to all who will accept it. However, those of us who receive must then decide what to do with the gift. If we hide it away, only to be brought out on special occasions, it will wither and fail to thrive. God’s holy presence in us is to be shared and allowed to become an inseparable part of our daily experience. One of the most effective ways God works on earth is through the hands and hearts of God’s people. God’s favor is given to us, and we respond to God’s favor by passing the blessings it brings on to others.

The essence of Emmanuel is love. Love manifests in relationships. Through the birth of Jesus, God chose to be in relationship, physically, with the people of the time. Today, God chooses to be in relationship with us spiritually. God reaches to us; but until we reach back and accept God’s invitation, there can be no relationship. At that point, we begin to know, recognize, and respond to God’s favor. Otherwise, God’s favor is like a radio wave being transmitted, but not received. God speaks, but is not heard.

Come home to church this Sunday. Receive the favor of God by receiving and following Jesus.

Greg Hildenbrand

How the Christ Stole Grinchmas

Life Notes—December 19, 2013 

  “He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps… means a little bit more! And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”  Excerpt from How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I need to buy gifts, but the stores are crowded. I need to write and send Christmas cards, but time is short. I need to send packages to loved ones far away, but have you seen the lines at the Post Office? Christmas is only days away. How can I possibly be ready in time? I imagine all the people I am about to disappoint, including myself. The expectations are simply too high. It is enough to make one’s heart shrink three sizes. It is enough to make a person Grinch-like.

In the Dr. Seuss book-made-movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch looks down with scorn on the people of Whoville as they prepare for Christmas. He sees the joy of family gatherings, and he scowls at the festive preparations. He hears the voices singing their traditional songs. He smells the wonderful foods being prepared for the feast. He senses the excitement building, with the presents and decorated trees and lights. However, the Grinch is on the outside, looking down on the celebration. There is no joy, no fellowship, and no love on the outside. The Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas from the people of Whoville. He sneaks into town, takes all the presents, food, and decorations, and watches to see the misery he has created. Of course, there is no misery in Whoville, because Christmas is not about the presents, food, and decorations. Christmas comes without all the fluff, and the Grinch learns the true meaning of Christmas is in relationships, and in the birth of a Savior.

It is easy to focus on the wrong things in this season. When we do, we risk turning Christmas into Grinchmas. We find ourselves on the outside looking in, jealously, at those who successfully internalize the joy of the season. When we find ourselves in Grinchmas, we feel alone, stressed, and bitter. Jesus Christ, the reason for the season, wants to steal that from us; and he will, if we let him. However, we must first let go of the stress and latch on to the joy. Christ will do the rest.

Come home to church this Sunday. Get the Grinch out of your Christmas.

Greg Hildenbrand

A Worthwhile Wait

Life Notes—December 12, 2013 

  “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord…’”

John 1:23

It was my last business trip of the year. Everything went according to schedule, until my phone rang at 5:20 on the morning I was to return home. A computerized voice said my flights had been cancelled and would I accept rebooking for the following day. I said, “No,” and was told to hold for the next available agent. An hour or so later, a nice woman made flight arrangements that would get me home on the same day, albeit 12 hours later than I had planned. The wait was worthwhile. I arrived at the airport long before my new flight was to depart and was told, “All passengers bound for Dallas, please wait in this line for the next available agent. Your flights have been cancelled.” That wait was another hour, but the agent assured me my flights had not been cancelled, only delayed a couple hours. Again, the wait was worthwhile because I would get home later that day. I got to my gate several hours before the new departure time, and waited. Several hours later, my flights were cancelled after all. I returned to the ticket counter for rebooking. Another line and another long wait, and I was booked onto the same flights I had been offered at 5:20 that morning, returning me home the next day. It was a lot of waiting for one day, with very little to show for it.

Advent is a time of waiting. Advent is a time of preparation. In truth, it is a time to prepare while we wait. Christmas does not arrive until December 25, regardless of how early we begin our preparations. On my business trip, I was not going to get home on my planned day, regardless of how long I waited or how diligently I prepared. It would happen in its time. Whether our Advent journey is worthwhile depends on what we do as we are waiting. John the Baptist, whose ministry preceded that of Jesus, proclaimed, “Prepare the way!” He preached the need to prepare ourselves for Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, while we wait.

The season of Advent invites us to reevaluate Jesus’ place in our lives. It is a time to reflect on the areas needing a Savior’s help and guidance. Yet, holiday parties, gift buying, decorating, and other activities that leave little time for serious reflection, will consume this time of preparation and waiting. We do well to make time to reflect and prepare, while we wait. Otherwise, Advent will become a wasted opportunity to draw closer to God, and Christmas will just be another holiday.

Come home to church this Sunday. What are you waiting for this season?

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

A Different Peace

Life Notes—December 5, 2013 

  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”  Matthew 10:34-36

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

Typically, my favorite part of Christmas is very late on Christmas Eve. Once the stores have finally closed, travelers have arrived at their destinations, and the worship services are over, my world becomes quiet. Everything seems to be in its proper place. Strands of Silent Night linger in the air, and the world is at peace. However, the world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is strife across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with the person of Jesus in Matthew? I believe the answer lies in our understanding of peace. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace.

In war, peace comes when one side surrenders to the other. In business, peace often comes through consensus, where competing sides find a resolution that includes elements of importance to both. In families, peace may come by surrender or consensus. The peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Jesus. Referring to Jesus as Lord is an expression of our submission. As a community, peace will come through a consensus that respects, values, and includes the diversity of creation. All are created in the image of God, so none can be left behind.

In a war-like surrender, one side is beaten into submission. As individuals, we submit, or surrender to Jesus’ terms. Truly, the battle we wage is not against Jesus, but against our misunderstanding of his teachings. We cannot know peace without being in harmony with Christ. However, true peace goes well beyond the individual. Jesus’ words are a call to war—a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. We have the resources to eliminate much of what keeps our fellow man in bondage and our world from peace. But do we have the will to do so? Until we exercise that will, we will not find peace. True peace cannot come to any, until it comes to all. Until we follow Jesus’ command to love one another, Jesus’ words will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

This is the second Sunday of Advent. The theme is Peace. Tom will preach downtown, where Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall, and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary. Mitch will preach at the west campus, where contemporary worship is at 9 and 11.

Come home to church this Sunday. Contemplate the peace that passes understanding.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator