Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday 03

Living God's Mission

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” -Luke 1:28-31, 34

Our Christmas traditions have sanitized the Jesus birth narrative by removing the event from its biblical and historical context. Jesus was born in a stable, a cave where animals were kept. And where there are animals there is also dung, which in turn brings flies. The setting of Jesus’ birth was not sanitary and it doesn’t get better from there. Jesus spent his earliest years as a refugee in Africa escaping the genocide that Herod was committing in Judea against children aged two and under.

In turn the Gospel of Luke makes it indelibly clear that walking in the way of Jesus is neither safe nor predictable. Sometimes we have the idea that when we do right, wrong is not supposed to show up. And if we are faithfully following Jesus, then life isn’t supposed to get messy, but it does.

God’s favour cannot be earned. God comes when we are doing everything wrong. God comes when we are doing nothing. God comes whether we are being naughty or nice. Why? Because God loves us and we are highly favoured. Look at the situation from Mary’s perspective. She had worked really hard to do what was right, yet it seemed like wrong still showed up. This God miracle of the birth of the Messiah was in the context of an unplanned teenaged pregnancy with all the emotional grief that would entail. How emotionally prepared would a 12-15 year old be for this life experience. God’s blessing would only continue to bring pain into Mary’s life – all the way to the foot of the cross.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Maybe you have done everything you know how to be faithful to God and true to your family, and then you are notified four weeks before the holidays that your job will be discontinued. Or your husband tells you that he doesn’t love you anymore and wants a divorce. Or your four year old is diagnosed with leukemia. No where does the Bible say that a life of faith will always make sense or follow a predictable path.

Read II Corinthians 11:23-30:
Why do you think God would allow Paul - a great servant of Jesus - to go through so much persecution and to endure so much suffering? 

God’s love and favour on us doesn’t mean that the path of faith is going to be neat and predictable. Life gets messy, but in the midst of your mess - God shows up. No matter what you are struggling to overcome, no matter what life issues have come your way, God promises to show up. Christmas is God’s vivid reminder that amid the uncertainty, God shows up to bring peace, purpose, joy and wholeness.

So why did God choose Mary? Mary had proactive faith. A person with proactive faith doesn’t live in the paralysis of doubt and disillusionment. Instead they actively pursue God’s redemptive purpose and presence in the midst of any situation, even when it doesn’t make sense.

The Holy Spirit is with you right now to be your helper through any situation, including the messy ones. When life isn’t making sense, the power of God will be a shadow over you! That gift, however, is often experienced in pain and suffering. Just remember, God’s promise may be delayed but it will not be denied.

Life is not about staying safe and living comfortably. The call to follow Jesus is
a call to give your life to him and to join God’s mission in healing the souls of the world. The real rewards are found in the joy and peace that we experience through serving others in Christ’s spirit.

1. What is your vision of a perfect Christmas? What imperfect circumstances will you face this year that will challenge your ability to celebrate Christmas fully?
2. What emotional and social pressures do you think Mary felt in the months and days leading up to Jesus’ birth? How well do you think you would have handled the situation as either Mary or Joseph?
3. How should Mary’s experience of that first Christmas influence the way you approach the holiday season?
4. Has life ever smacked you down even though you were trying to do everything right? What was your initial reaction to God, and how did you get through it?
5. How can you celebrate Jesus in the midst of your struggles? How can God use your current struggles to help others this upcoming holiday season?
6. Name one promise of God that you can stand upon even in the midst of trials and life troubles.

This week focus on helping someone you know that is struggling in life and/or faith and commit to praying for them, asking them how you can help, and following through with help and encouragement. 


Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent Conspiracy 01: Worship Fully

“Worship” derives from Old-English words meaning “worth-ship.” 
What we give worth to is what we worship: possessions, God, shopping, money, Jesus. 

Advent is a time to consciously direct our worship at Jesus, seeing him in everyone and worshiping him everywhere. How can you worship more fully this Christmas?

• In the Exodus story, every time God says, “Let my people go” it’s followed by “so that they may worship me.” Is our culture captive to things that come between us and full worship? What are those things?

“Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols.” (2 Kings 17:41) 
Does that passage apply only to ancient polytheists?

• In the weeks before Christmas, is it easier to worship God or more difficult?

• If extra-terrestrials landed in our homes on Christmas morning, what would they see as having “worth-ship” to us?

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirt and in truth.”

What does that mean?

• In what specific ways do you find it easy to worship God?

• What specific thing can you do during the coming week to prepare for the birth of Christ by worshiping more fully? Share it with a friend. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday 02

You Are A Miracle Worker

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 
-Isaiah 7:14

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 
-Isaiah 53:5-6

Centuries before Jesus’ birth the ancient prophets spoke of the coming of a messiah deliverer who would be called:

“...Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end...” 
-Isaiah 9:6-7

But this Messiah king would also know suffering and rejection, and his mission would clearly prioritize the poor and marginalized. Expectations of what this messiah would be like and look like, however, were quite diverse and even contradictory. Some expected a worldly political revolutionary who would restore the glory days of the Davidic Kingdom, whereas others visualized a messiah who represented the Greek ideal of focusing totally on the afterlife.

Jesus was not what folks expected. When you think about God, adjectives like powerful, majestic, and almighty tend to come to mind. But Jesus did not come to earth with any air of worldly wealth or majestic power. On the contrary, everything about Jesus’ life stood in stark contrast to worldly priorities and values. As a man, he lived in tension with the organized religious system. He resisted the world’s obsession with wealth, pleasure, power, and recognition. He identified with the weak and powerless, the widow and orphan. And he did not condemn the sinner. So what does God look like? Like Jesus!

List some of the adjectives that come to mind when you think about Jesus, his attitude, his relationships, his life and mission. How do these contradict what the culture teaches about success and influence?

Too often we view God like Santa Claus – a genie in a bottle here to fulfill three wishes. We have created this Santa Claus Jesus in our own image, a golden-calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes, an idol of consumption who supports the human quest for meaning and purpose in material things outside of a relationship with God. But at Christmas we should celebrate the birth of the Messiah who was born not only to die sacrificially for us but to show us how to live sacrificially. Christmas is the celebration of a miracle but we’ve edged the miracle worker out of his own birthday celebration. It is time to take it back by planning new traditions that focus on Jesus’ presence, rather than the often forgettable presents we expect to give and receive.

Christmas is about a miracle. Miracles don’t just happen; they are born through labours of pain. The dictionary defines miracle as a visible interruption of the laws of nature, understood by divine intervention and often accompanied by a miracle worker. In other words a miracle is a unique event in the world that God does through people like you and me. That’s right – you are God’s miracle worker! You are God’s means to affect change in your world and God wants to birth a miracle through you. Every miracle of God is conceived in the heart of the believer, grows in conviction and clarity, and is delivered through committed action. And every spirit-filled Christian has the potential for a God movement within them. Are you ready for God to birth a Christmas miracle through you?

(Michael Slaughter)

1. How do you picture God? How do you think this picture affects your Christian walk and your faith in God?
2. Name the ways your image of God has more in common with Santa Claus than with who Jesus is and how he lived?
3. Have you ever witnessed or experienced a miracle? If so what happened? Do you think God could actually work a miracle through your life?
4. For your life to be meaningful you need to give it away to others. What does that look like for you, and how difficult is it? Do you have capacity to give away more?
5. What would it take for you to be more prepared for God to use you for miraculous purposes in the world?
6. What ideas do you have that could be seeds for a mission miracle? How could this group help you make it happen?

CHALLENGE: Pray about it and then write down 1-3 ideas or thoughts that you think might be God-initiated dreams for you to pursue in helping change this world for God's kingdom.

Challenge – Pray about and then write down 1-3 ideas or thoughts that you feel 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Altogether One

Wouldn't everything be great if other people weren't messing it up all the time? Paul talks to the Ephesians about how they ought to treat each other.

Ephesians 4:1-7

1 Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.

7 However, he has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ.

You have abilities and perspectives that other people need. And other people have perspectives and abilities that you need. So, get together and change the world!

- g-ram

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: 01

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” - Luke 4:18-21 

It is October 12 and I am on my way to the local mall to purchase a new carry-on bag. I am scanning the radio channels and notice that one station has already switched to a twenty-four-hour Christmas music format. Bruce Springsteen is singing familiar reminders about Santa Claus seeing you “when you are sleeping” and knowing “when you are awake.” My mother used such reminders as part of some behavioural modification strategy leading up to Christmas season every year.

Growing up, Christmas was like a second birthday but a much bigger and better deal! Mom’s reminder was clear: I’d better be good or I would get a lump of coal in my stocking instead of the new Red Ryder BB gun that I was willing to trade my little sister for. Apparently reminders worked, because I did get my Red Ryder that Christmas. No I didn’t shoot my eye out but I did ricochet a BB off my forehead once while target shooting in our basement.
As we grow older, our desired gifts become more sophisticated. Unfortunately the idolatrous promise of the desired object to bring us life-fulfillment and meaning is never realized as the newness wears off and we seek the next new, best thing. We are hypnotically lured by the seductive marketing sirens of mindless consumption. And by buying into the false promises of secular consumerism we continue to feed our children’s materialistic self-focused addictions.

I arrive at the mall and notice that the marketing preparations are in full swing. Santa Land is under construction as workers on motorized lifts hang banners heralding the season of conspicuous consumption.

According to the National Retail Federation, as of 2010, adult consumers spent
an average of $830 each on holiday food, decorations and presents. In a two-parent family that equates to roughly $1600.00! Now add this cost to the average American household credit card balance of $15,788 with an average annual percentage rate of 14.67%.

Christmas has been hijacked and exploited. We have professed allegiance to Jesus but celebrate his birth with an orgy of materialism. Christmas is not your birthday; it’s Jesus birthday! This study will help you reclaim the broader missional meaning of Jesus’ birth and experience a Christmas season with more peace and joy than any toy or gadget could ever bring. 
(Michael Slaughter)

What was the best Christmas gift you remember
receiving as a child and why?

1. Think about your family’s Christmas traditions as you grew up. What were the most unique traditions you practiced? How many of them focused on your own comfort and pleasure, and which were sacrificial in nature?
2. Think of one of the best Christmas gifts you’ve ever given to someone. What made it the best, and how long do you think they appreciated it?
3. Name some ways you think Christmas has been hijacked. How have you allowed Christmas to become more about you and/or consumerism than about Jesus?
4. Do you typically use cash only for Christmas, or do you go into at least a little debt? How can you make this year a cash-only Christmas?
5. What are some things you currently enjoy or love about the holiday season? What don’t you like? Is there a common theme between what you like and don’t like?
6. What new tradition(s) can you plan that would focus more on Jesus’ presence than presents?

Challenge: Ask those closest to you, whether friends, family, parents or children, what they would change about the Christmas holiday and why? 


Monday, November 14, 2011

Habakkuk 02: In The Dip Follow Up

Objective: To see God’s goodness in the past, leave behind any idols we may be putting our faith in and trust God’s goodness even when circumstances seem hopeless.
When Habakkuk questioned God about evil and injustice this was God’s response:
Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked; but the righteous will live by their faith. Hab 2:4 (NLT)
  • What did it mean for Habakkuk and his people to “live by faith?” 
  • Describe a time in your life when the circumstances seemed hopeless but you “lived by faith.”
  • How did you see God’s goodness revealed through these circumstances? 
  • How did it affect your relationship with God? Your relationship with others?
God went on to say:
What have you gained by worshiping all your man-made idols? How foolish to trust in something made by your own hands! What fools you are to believe such lies! How terrible it will be for you who beg lifeless wooden idols to save you. You ask speechless stone images to tell you what to do. Can an idol speak for God? They may be overlaid with gold and silver, but they are lifeless inside. 
But the LORD is in his holy Temple. Let all the earth be silent before him."
Hab 2:18-20 (NLT)
i•dol: an image or other material object representing a deity other than God; a false conception or notion; fallacy.
• Many Jews were trusting idols to rescue them. What kind of ”idols” do many people look to for their rescue today?
• Describe areas in your life where you are temped to trust in “idols” rather than God?
• How will you “live by faith” in those areas of your life? How can your group help you?
Pray in your own words and ask God for the following:
  • Eyes to see His goodness in every area of your life 
  • Wisdom to identify and reject any “idols” you may be putting your trust in today
     • Strength to “live by faith” and trust Him even when things look hopeless.
For Further Study
Deuteronomy 16:21-17:20 
What was Israel commanded not to set up? (16:21-22) What kind of sacrifice is detestable to the Lord? (17:1) What was to be done if someone was suspected of worshiping other gods? (17:2-4) How was the punishment for idol worship to be handled? (17:5) What implications do these verses have for our attitude toward justice and fairness?
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 
Why did Paul refer to Israel's history? (10:1) How do the Israelites serve as examples to us? (10:1-6) Why did God record the experiences of the Israelites? (10:6, 11) Why is it important that all the temptations Christians face are common to everyone? (10:13) How is God faithful? (10:13) What have you learned about God from this history of Israel? What have you learned about yourself from this history of Israel?


Monday, November 7, 2011

Habakkuk 01: Where Are You God? Follow Up Questions

God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke. The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head. Hab 1:2-4 (Message)

To trust God with our frustrations, while also trusting His timing and His purposes.

• [Suggested Time 3 min.] How would you describe Habakkuk’s mood in this passage? What seems to be his driving passion here?

• [Suggested Time 5 min.] Describe a time when you’ve had similar feelings. In those moments, did you have this kind of frank and raw conversation with God? Why or why not?

Pause and read God’s response to Habakkuk’s questions:
I am raising up the Babylonians to be a new power on the world scene. They are a cruel and violent nation who will march across the world and conquer it. Hab 1:6 (NLT)

Pause and read Habakkuk’s reaction:

God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work? ...You gave them the job of discipline? But you can’t be serious! You can’t condone evil! So why don’t you do something about this? Why are you silent now?
Hab 1:12-13 (Message)

• [Suggested Time 3 min.] Why do you think Habakkuk felt so shocked by God’s response?
• [Suggested Time 3 min.] When and where do you see injustices like these today?

• [Suggested Time 5 min.] Describe a time when you felt a sense of “injustice” similar to Habakkuk’s.

Pause and read Habakkuk’s next words:I’ll wait to see what God says, how he’ll answer my complaint. Hab 2:1 (NLT)

• [Suggested Time 3 min.] How hard do you think it must have been for Ha- bakkuk to wait on God’s timing?

• [Suggested Time 5 min.] In your past experience, how has waiting on God’s timing affected your attitudes toward God and the circumstances?

• [Suggested Time 5 min.] Is there some area of your life where you are struggling to wait on God’s timing, frustrated by His answers or confused by apparent injustice?

• [Suggested Time 5 min.] Now take the next few minutes to have an honest personal conversation with God about your struggles, remember...God has broad shoulders and a loving spirit. He is interested in what you have to say! 

For Further Study

Habakkuk 1: If you could talk with one prominent person, whom would you choose and what would you discuss? What did Habakkuk receive? (1:1) About what was the prophet distressed? (1:2-4) How did God answer Habakkuk's complaint? (1:5-11) Why was the prophet perplexed and bewildered? (1:12-17)

When people suffer because of violence and injustice,
how do you feel? God used the ungodly Babylonians to punish Israel. How does God speak to Christians through the actions of pagans nowadays?
When have you been perplexed about why God allowed something to happen?

When can you take time this week to be open and honest with the Lord about some of your deepest concerns or frustrations? 


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

No Really, I Will

I say I'm going to read more, eat healthier, start exercising... I say a lot of things. But here's a good reminder from 1 John 3.

1 John 3:18-19

18 Dear children, let's not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God.

Just saying it doesn't cut it. Especially when it comes to love.

- g-ram