Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday 06

Making Life Different

For most people in Western contexts, shopping is spirituality. It is an attempt to find meaning and happiness in the product... Once again we are back to idolatry: the attempt to establish meaning and purpose on our own terms outside of a relationship with God. -Alan & Deb Hirsch

The holiday season often brings increased stress and even depression due to the dizzying demands and distractions of shopping, work parties, extended family visits, blended family responsibilities, cleaning, baking, entertaining, and –oh yes- did I mention spending? To top it off, burning the candle at both ends makes us more susceptible to colds and other ailments.

Then we start off the New Year with guilt (and inches) from overeating, the debt from overspending, and the emotional low that comes from pursuit of fleeting joy. Meanwhile, the reason for the season -Immanuel, God with us- gets lost in the frantic complexity. But it doesn’t have to.

On January 6, after the holiday vacations are over and the gifts and decorations are put away, we celebrate Epiphany-the arrival of the wise men or “magi” who came from afar to see the new king. The true biblical account of the magi is an inspiring example of persistent life-altering faith. The amount of energy and expense involved in their journey would have been considerable in what appears to have been a two-year quest. And after they arrived they offered Jesus treasures that would have been worthy of a king.

Matthew 2:11-12: On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

What we see here are the marks of true commitment:
1) They bowed down and worshipped him – when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord we humbly submit to his authority.
2) They opened their treasures – the resources of heaven don’t fall from the sky, instead they are released through God’s people.

3) They returned to their country by a different road – Belief is simple, but changing course or life attitudes and practices are often hard commitments to make. 

January is a traditional time to commit to taking a different road. We see the New Year as a time for making resolutions to change something about our lives. Whether it be quitting a bad habit or starting healthier practices, we vow to make this year different. But what if we allow the lessons of Advent and Christmas to shape the way we start the calendar year - and the rest of our lives - by reorienting our priorities to focus not on ourselves but on the radical love Jesus gives to us and asks from us in return.

Jesus continually challenges our life values and priorities by making clear the contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of consumption. Overspending, debt, and attachment to material possessions hinder our ability to fully commit to following Jesus in sacrificial mission. The more we have the harder we have to work to maintain what we have, which means less time to develop relationships with those closest to us and less time to serve Jesus’ mission for the least and the lost. Jesus names the alternative path for his followers:

Matthew 6:31-33: So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 

1. Do you typically begin each New Year with a big relief, big guilt, big gut, big expectations, big let-down, big debt, big joy and/or big depression? Why do you think this is?
2. Which of the following examples of the three Magi do you most need to put into practice: Submitting to Jesus’ authority over your life, opening up your treasures for God’s purposes or committing to a needed life course change with God’s help? What will you do to begin making this happen?
3. How can you simplify your home to create more room for peace and righteousness, rather than for more stuff? What excess can you get rid of in your home (or your schedule) to reflect more accurately where your priorities lie?
4. What would it mean for you to “seek God’s kingdom first”? What changes would that shift necessitate in your life?
5. Take a moment right now to think of ways you can make first things first by finishing the following sentences:
I will spend more time with the people I love by ______________________________. 

I will demonstrate my faith in practical service by _____________________________. 
I will cultivate my relationship with God by __________________________________.

Write down what you will do differently this holiday season in order to honour Jesus' birthday and God's desire to bring good news to all people.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Fear Creeps In

Who do you turn to when you're afraid?

Psalm 118:5-9

In my distress I prayed to the LORD,
and the LORD answered me and set me free.
The LORD is for me, so I will have no fear.
What can mere people do to me?
Yes, the LORD is for me; he will help me.
I will look in triumph at those who hate me.

If your fear is holding you back, find freedom in God's arms.

- g-ram

Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent Conspiracy 03: Give More

Living Water International sends over 1,000 people a year on more than 100 mission trips to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. Every week volunteers are received by indigenous hosts in those countries. We asked one of those hosts, an evangelist and seminary graduate, the following question: “As short-term missionaries, what is the single most valuable thing we can do to advance the gospel in your country? Share my testimony? Show the Jesus film? Drill more wells? Hand out Bibles? Tell Bible stories? Build churches? What?”

This was his answer: “Make friends. Give yourself. Give time. Eat a meal in my house even if all I have is beans. Let me give something to you. Grab a Frisbee and play with our children. It makes us feel important. Laugh. If you don’t speak our language, just smile and make signs with your hands. In our culture, nothing you can say about Jesus makes much sense until you’ve made friends with us. Our perception of gringos comes from television and movies. You could be other things, and we know your time is valuable. Share it with us.”

Is any culture really any different?


• God gave us his son for Christmas. We give stuff. What would a Christmas giving tradition modeled after God’s giving look like?
• Have you ever received a gift you felt was given out of a sense of obligation? How would you describe the “spirit” of such a gift?
• What is the most thoughtful or loving gift you have ever received? How would you describe its “spirit”?
• Life itself is God’s gift of time to you. Is there someone in your life who would prosper from the gift of your time?
• In what specific way will you give yourself in the coming week? 


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday 05

Session 5: Creating New Traditions Based on Ch. 4: 
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. -I John 3:16-18

Do you struggle to come up with the perfect gifts each Christmas for the special people in your life? It can be tough but here’s an even more important question: 

What do you give Jesus on his birthday? 
How can we change the traditional focus of Christmas from materialistic self indulgence to giving Jesus what he desires on his birthday? 
And what can you possibly give the Lord of the universe? 
Fortunately Jesus made his wish list unquestionably clear in his last teaching in the book of Matthew concerning his return and the day of final judgment.

Matthew 25:31-36: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of
the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

We serve God when we serve others. We give to Jesus when we sacrifice our time, talents, and resources to meet other’s needs in his name. The church is the body of Christ. We are the only hands, feet, and wallets that Jesus has. Many people ask the question “If God is all-loving and all-powerful then why doesn’t God do something about evil?” The answer to this question is simple: you are the something that God is sending to combat evil in this world.

You are the evidence that the Messiah of God’s Kingdom is among you when everything that is broken around you is being restored, when the oppressed and captive are being set free, and when good news is being preached to the poor. Everyone who recognizes Jesus as Messiah is a servant of his mission and if that includes us, then we need to be committed to live more simply so that others may simply live - because that is what Jesus desires from his followers. 

Can you imagine the birthday celebration if every Christian in every church practiced the commitment of giving an equal amount of what they spend on themselves to a specific Jesus mission somewhere in the world? We can change the world one place at a time, one person at a time, if we are willing to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in a way that honours him. When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord we give him the rights to define our lifestyles, our values, and yes, in the way we celebrate his birth.

At Christmas, we celebrate a messiah, a deliverer who was born to die. So we too are called to give ourselves sacrificially with Christ for the world that God loves. Such sacrifice is paradoxical because the more of ourselves that we give away, the more abundant our faith and our commitment will be with what we have.

1. Who is the hardest person to shop for on your Christmas shopping list? How much time and energy do you have to spend finding a gift for him or her?
2. What would happen if you put as much time and energy into Jesus’ wish list each Christmas as you put into getting everyone the right gift?
3. What are some practical ways we can change the traditional focus of Christmas from materialistic self-indulgence to giving Jesus what he desires?
4. Describe an event where you gave of your time, talent and/or resources and were completely blessed beyond what you expected.
5. Why do you think God uses people to bring restoration and healing to a broken world instead of just stepping in with almighty power? Has God ever used you?
6. What “big buts” are keeping you from giving sacrificially of both time and money? What excuses do you need to overcome this year to truly honor Jesus with your life’s resources?

Get Creative! What is one new tradition or family practice you could start this year to make every Christmas a more authentic celebration of Jesus?


Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent Conspiracy 02: Spend Less

A group of Living Water International missionaries and Advent Conspiracy visionaries visited an AC well in a Liberian village. The area had been ravaged by theft, so Living Water had installed a lockable protective steel jacket over the new well’s pump to prevent it from being stolen. The village had taken an additional measure—they encased the entire pump in concrete! Only the pump handle and spout stuck out. We asked what they were going to do if we needed to repair the well in a few years. They said they would gladly spend days chipping it out of the concrete with hammers. They said that that was far better than spending days without water to drink. They had seen all the death they could stand. Jesus had given them life for Christmas and that was a gift too precious to lose. When we asked what they wanted next Christmas, they asked for a well for the neighboring village.

Not one of the North Americans there could even remember what gifts we had received the previous Christmas. None of us had ever received a gift we loved so much that our first reaction was to want someone else to have it. Meanwhile, children all around played with little cars they had made out of plastic talcum powder bottles with wire axels and wheels cut from sandal soles, happy as can be, without spending a dime.


• “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26) What does this translate to in terms of practice?

• “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Were you brought up with the same view as Ezekiel regarding the “sin of Sodom”?

• “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11) What does it mean to be “trustworthy” with wealth? What are “true riches”?

• “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) What is one step you could take in the coming week towards trusting God’s sufficiency.

• Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas. Two percent of that, $10 billion, would provide clean drinking water in Jesus’ name to half the world’s people who need it. Is this doable? Or is it a crazy pipe-dream? 


Friday, December 9, 2011

Turbo Christmas Story

Super-fast Message of Christmas perfectly encapsulated in 2 verses:

"For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NLT)

"Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. (Revelation 3:20 NLT)

- g-ram

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Is Not Your Birthday 04

Putting Jesus' Love Into Action

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. -Hosea 1:2-3

Christmas is the heralding of a God who pursues us so relentlessly as to come to earth in human form to be with us. The incarnation is the revelation of our scandalous love affair with the world, and God’s persistent striving to bring us back to him.

One of the most passionate illustrations of God’s love affair with humanity is found in the book of Hosea. During Israel’s last days of prosperity under Jeroboam II the Israelites became lukewarm in the faith and strayed as God’s people often do in prosperous times. From a human perspective we can equate God’s relationship with the Israelites to the sacred trust commitment made and then broken in marriage. But God demonstrates unrelenting love for God’s people through Hosea by telling him to go and marry a wife of “whoredom” and have children by her. Can you imagine marrying someone you knew would be unfaithful and spend your life wondering if your children were really your own?

Hosea 3:1-3: The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.

Hosea represents God’s relentless pursuing love and Hosea’s wife of prostitution represents God’s people, not only the Israelites but also you and me. God loves us and wants us even while we are under the influence of unworthy lovers such as greed, selfishness, addiction and deceit. So God has come to buy us back! The magnitude of this kind of love is beyond my comprehension, but after is in the eye of the beholder.

We have been created to find life and meaning through exclusive devotion to our lover - God, but in the spirit of prostitution we sell ourselves out to the consumerist johns of materialism and greed. This is never more obvious than in the way we celebrate Jesus’ birth in a self-focused, hedonistic feast of gluttony, oblivious to what God really wants from us. 

What God wants from us for Jesus’ birthday and every day is love. God desires that we return God’s scandalous love with our own, demonstrated by how we treat those in need. God is not oblivious to the fact that one child dies every four seconds of a hunger-related cause or that as many as seven will die by the time you finish reading this page. God also knows that more than 14 million AIDS orphans were reported in 2008 worldwide. God also knows that one child dies every forty-five seconds from malaria which could be prevented by a simple mosquito net that costs less than ten dollars.

Only when we realize how far we have strayed from the one who loves us so deeply and unconditionally can we respond in radical faith. And when we passionately pursue God as our defining life center, then everything else will be rightly ordered. Though we may not deserve it, God showed us mercy by sending us his Son to show us the way home. Jesus came to earth as a tiny baby in humble, scandalous circumstances to redeem and restore broken places and broken hearts. That is the love we celebrate at Christmas and it is that kind of love that we are called to show in return.

Think of one person in your life who has either disappointed you deeply or hurt you in a way that you need to forgive them, and pray that God would help you. Commit to praying for him or her for this whole week.

1. How might your life look different if you could fully understand and embrace God’s passionate and unconditional love for you? When or where have you experienced God’s relentless pursuit of having a relationship with you?
2. Think about the deepest and most enduring relationship you’ve experienced – with a spouse, parent or friend. If this is only a glimpse of the relationship God wants with you, what must that mean about God’s love?
3. How do we tend to “sell ourselves” to other things instead of making God our number one love? What one thing do you struggle with the most?
4. God promises to bring good out of bad, to raise up the lowly and to comfort the afflicted. How would you view or live your life if you trusted completely in those promises?
5. What would it mean for us to love others “scandalously”? How would that be different from the safe, cautious ways we often show Christ’s love in the world?
6. To whom or in what way can you show “scandalous” love this holiday season because of God’s great love shown to you?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Habakkuk 03: Climbing Out Of The Dip Follow Up

Objective: Asking God to replace the hopelessness in our lives with the joy that comes from a relationship with Him.

I have heard all about you, LORD, and I am filled with awe by the amazing things you have done. Hab 3:1-2 (NLT)

What kind of relationship do you think Habakkuk had with God? Do you think this gave him hope for the future? Why or why not?

Describe a time when God gave you hope through something amazing He did in the life of another person.

Looking at the physical world around him, Habakkuk said:

His brilliant splendour fills the heavens, and the earth is filled with his praise! What a wonderful God he is!” Hab 3:3 (NLT)

Awe (n.): A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, and wonder inspired by authority, great beauty, or might. 

Describe a time when, like Habakkuk, you were “awed” by God’s creation.

Do you feel like your relationship with God changed through this experience? If so, how?

In the face of an apparently hopeless situation, Habakkuk still had this to say about God:

“...yet I will rejoice in the LORD! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign LORD is my strength! He will make me as surefooted as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.” Hab 3:18-19 (NLT)

Has there been a time in your life when God gave you joy even though your circumstances appeared hopeless?

Habakkuk moved from hopelessness to joy over the 3 chapters of this book. In what areas of your life would you like God to take you from hopelessness to joy?

In your own words, pray the following:   

Thank God for the amazing things you’ve seen Him do and heard about from others
Tell Him about your “awe” of Him
Ask Him bring the joy of your relationship with Him to the places in your life that seem hopeless

For Further Study

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20:

What best helps you worship God? 
How should a person go to the house of God? (5:1) 
How did Solomon encourage us to conduct ourselves in the house of God? (5:2-3) 
Why should we stand in awe of God? (5:7) 
Why is it important to approach God with the right attitude? What does it mean to stand in awe of God?

1 Chronicles 16:7-43:

When was the last time you felt overwhelmed with thankfulness or gratitude? 
According to David, why should we give thanks to the Lord? (16:8) 
What should people tell others about God? (16:9) 
What attitude should a person have toward God? (16:10-12) 
What had God done for Israel? (16:15-22) 
How did David express his thanks to God? 
How should we express our thanks and appreciation to God? 
For what specific reasons should we praise the Lord? 
How can praising the Lord change our attitude and outlook on life? 
What are some of the reasons you have to be thankful to God?