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                One Sunday morning many years ago, I was riding with my Mom to church. I was a teenager, so by that time we did not have many deep discussions. This particular Sunday, however, we were running a little behind and the cars in front of us kept getting slower and slower. I think I made some comment like, “Somedays it just isn’t easy to get to church.” I joked probably about us going home (it was a joke because I loved going to church.) My mom took this as a teaching moment. She told me that church isn’t supposed to be easy, there is supposed to be a sacrifice, a giving of something, in worshipping God and attending His house. If we are really serving Him, it will cost us something. Our salvation is bought and paid for by the sacrifice of Jesus, but our sanctification is built on us giving up some of the things we most want to keep.

                My mom knew about sacrifice. She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, who would also probably be identified as bi-polar (the alcohol and the bi-polar were two different things.) When she was a little girl, she went to live with an older brother and his new wife. Their marriage did not last, but my mom stayed with her former sister-in-law. No one really went to church from her family, and they were ok with that. She then met my dad and fell madly in love with him. As they dated and then married, my dad took my mom to the church his family attended. The church, especially the ladies, took my mom in and taught her about Jesus, about how to be a wife and how to be a mother. It was not easy for my mom. She did not grow up this way. The way she had seen others live, while not the best way, was much easier than what Jesus expected of her.

                My mom loved what the church had to offer. She listened as the ladies poured their lives into her’s. She learned to sacrifice for her husband and for her children. It was not easy, but it was worth it. I have no doubts that she was the greatest influence on my life for at least the first 25 years of it. Any struggles that I have, and any time that I think about quitting anything because it gets too hard, I remember her words about sacrifice, “If it’s worth it, it will cost us something.” I remember that her words meant something because I saw them in action.

                Most of us today want ease and convenience. Christianity Today recently published an article about the vice of ease. For the last 100 years, the American household has gotten a lot easier because of technology. In fact, everything seems to have gotten easier. We like the ease, but unfortunately, it has not made us happier or more satisfied. Why? Because Our souls do not crave ease. Our souls crave work, adventure, excitement, and accomplishment. Our physical bodies may want ease, but our spirits want effort and the sense of a job well done. We actually do want sacrifice. If it costs us something, it means more to us.

                King David understood the cost of sacrifice. In 1 Chronicles 21, David made a mistake. Following Satan and not God, David orders a census to count his fighting men. This, combined with God already be angry with Israel for its many sins (2 Samuel 24), caused a great plague to sweep through the land. Thousands of people were dying. David repented of his sins and begged God to relent. The angel of the Lord had his sword drawn over Jerusalem ready to attack when God stopped him. The exact place was the threshing floor of a man named Ornan. Ornan and his sons saw the angel just as David had seen him. They were rightly afraid. God ordered David to build him an alter right there. Ornan was perfectly happy to give the land to David (remember, he had just seen the angel with a sword.) David would not take the land for free. King David said to him, “No, I insist on paying the full price, for I will not take for the Lord what belongs to you or offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” David understood that in order to please God and do what He told him to do, it would cost him something. David would have to sacrifice.

                David bought the land, paying 15 pounds of gold, and built an alter to God there. He offered both burnt and fellowship offerings on that alter. The Lord sent fire to consume the offerings. The angel of the Lord put away his sword and the plague ended. The alter would stay for a little while longer. Its location would become the temple that David’s son Solomon would build for God. What David gave up, in both buying the land and offering a bull, would become the most holy place in all of Israel. It is possible, and likely fitting, that the spot the alter was built was where the most holy of holies would be situated in the temple. God used David’s sacrifice to bring about the building of the Jewish temple where God would reside. Many years later, after having been rebuilt twice, Jesus would also enter this temple.

                A true follower of Jesus understands that following Him requires sacrifice. He does not promise that our life will become easy. He does tell us that his yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30), but the word easy is best thought of as manageable. Following Jesus requires sacrifice. Sacrifice is not always what we want, but in the end, it is what we need. The great thing about it is that God will use our sacrifice to do some pretty amazing things.

MJ

                In the summer of 1967, over a 100,000 young people put flowers in their hair (San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair), loaded themselves into a VW van with at least one guitar, and made the trek to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. These young men and women had rejected the consumerism that their parents had embraced, and looked longingly into the promise that lots of drugs and sex would free them from the chains that their parents had become enslaved in. They were ready to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” as the writer Timothy Leary encouraged them to do. Popular culture would refer tot his time as “The Summer of Love” and these people would be called “hippies.”

                Unfortunately, many found out that San Francisco was not the utopia they were searching for. There were no places to stay or sleep, not enough food to eat, the drugs were causing them to crash hard, the STD’s were hurting, and they were not as welcome as they thought they would be. Crime skyrocketed, and laws were passed to criminalize much of their behavior. By the end of the summer, many of these young people packed up their belongings and returned from whence they came.

                A part of the “Summer of Love” that is often missing from the pages of history is a revival moment that started with these hippies. Many Christians saw the hurting and suffering of these young folks, and instead of looking down at them because they looked different, they chose to share the Gospel with them. The freedom that Jesus offered turned out to be exactly what they were looking for without the letdown the drugs and alcohol always had. The young men and women did not cut their hair, put on shoes, change their clothes, or change their taste in music, but their lives changed forever. They became known first as “Jesus People”, and then later mockingly called “Jesus Freaks”. Much like the early followers in Antioch who were supposedly insulted by the term “Christian” but embraced it, these young people proudly accepted and proclaimed themselves to be Jesus Freaks. Their movement was called the Jesus Movement. It is estimated that over 250,000 people gave their lives to Jesus at that time. Time Magazine even had a cover story about them. Their style of music would inspire what we know today as Contemporary Christian Music and the praise and worship songs we sing.

                The Jesus People of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is considered by many as the last great revival that this country has had. These people, who were not always welcome in many churches, spread the gospel of Jesus across this country and even into Europe. As they initially traveled west, I doubt many people thought that they would change the world in a positive way, yet they did. One lesson from them that we can take today is that God can use anyone to spark a deep change in our land.

                The reality is that it does not take much for a revival to begin. God showed Solomon what was necessary to see this happen. He told him after Solomon had built him a temple. God said,”  and My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). All we need to do is humble ourselves, pray, seek God, and turn from our evil ways. At that point, God will hear us, forgive us, and heal our land. We do our part, then God does his.

                One of my great desires for this year at Shallow Well is to see a great revival occur. I want to see people freed from the bondage of sin, families restored, lives changed, and our church explode with people. I would love to see our alter flooded with people and prayers. I would love to see people saved every week and we baptize regularly. I want every pew packed with people hungry to learn more about God. How amazing would it be if we had to start a second service to accommodate all the people? I know that this might be a little uncomfortable for some. The thought of change scares you. To you I ask, isn’t rescuing one soul from hell worth a little discomfort? Many of you share the same desire I have. To you I ask, what part do you need to take in seeing this happen? Have you done what God requires of you in 2 Chronicles? Are you sharing and inviting?

                I truly believe that God wants to do something amazing here. If I did not believe that, I would not be here. I would love for some future generation to tell the story of Shallow Well as a motivation. I believe this can happen if we want it to. Will you join me this year in making this happen by being a 2 Chronicle believer and follower?

MJ

                The world has been turned upside down, or at least it looks like it has. We have lost the ability to be civil and replaced it with the ability to be extremely loud and angry. We no longer can just disagree, we must now destroy those who disagree with us. Guilty people get to walk around free because they have the means to defend themselves while innocent men and women suffer because of their lack of funds. An allegation can ruin some people’s lives while facts can be ignored if you are powerful enough. Up has become down, right has become left, and honest, good people are left confused on how to walk in this strange world.

            There are several problems with seeing the world this way and the first is to assume that this a new phenomenon. That is not true. The world has been upside down and absolutes redefined since Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the wrong tree. We are not in a new situation. The only thing new about our situation is that technology allows us to see more of what is going on and allows us to instantly add our correct opinion on every subject.

            How are we to live in a world where everything is turned away from the way it is supposed to be? How do we offer support to those who have been hurt while not blindly believing every story we are told? How can we be both compassionate and clear headed? Jesus offers us the answer in Matthew 10:16. He says, “Look, I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.” Interesting the animals Jesus used to make his point.

            In case you are not familiar with Matthew 10, it is where Jesus sends out His disciples to preach to Israel. Before they go He gave them instructions laced with warnings. He let them know how bad it was going to be. I do not think Jesus was just referring to 1st century Israel. I believe that He was warning every Christian from that time forward. He was telling us that we are sent as sheep into a culture of wolves. We are the prey. We are the ones who are the lowest on the food chain. There are those licking their lips at our arrival. Jesus knew this and gave us great wisdom in how to handle this world. He told us to be as wise as serpents and gentle (or innocent) as doves.

            This is how we are to navigate a world that seems so wrong to us. We are to remain wise. We are not to be carried away by every story we hear. Not every sad story is true. I have been a preacher long enough and heard enough sob stories to know how they go. Sometimes I want to stop the teller in the middle and finish the story for them. I have heard enough of them and I know how many gas tanks can be filled and electricity can be kept on with just a pocketful of cash. When you have heard them enough you start to get jaded. You start to recognize the lies and see the cons. After a few dozen of these stories you know longer see people, and you just see the bad decisions and their desire for their next drink or fix. There is nothing wrong with being able to see past a sad story and knowing the truth.

            One problem with the “wise as serpent” part is that if we stay right there we miss the “harmless/innocent as doves” part. We get so caught up with having to know the truth (and there is nothing wrong with knowing the truth, we should) we lose sight of the hurting people. We see a drunk trying to get 10 bucks from someone, so we miss how he is hurting. We see the parent’s bad decisions and do not want to allow them to continue that we miss the kids who are hurt. We lose our compassion because we believe everyone is running some type of game on us. We become jaded and people continue to hurt.

            There is a proper place for us. We are to be wise. We are to look for, and find, the truth. We are to be discerning. We are also to be loving, kind and good to people. It is just as easy to become someone who is so “innocent” they we are always being taken advantage of and become no good for any person. We are not to become so hard or so soft that no one gets to see the real Jesus in us. We are to be the perfect mixture of wise and innocent. Discerning and compassionate. We are to learn to say ‘no’ to those who need to hear it, and to say ‘yes’ to those who need to hear that. Ultimately, we are to be more like Jesus. We are to lament over our city (Matt 23:37-39) and drive out money changers in our midst (Matt. 21:12-13). It is possible to live in this world and not be stained by it. It is possible to be both loving to the hurt and wise for the accused. We can be both civil and correct. We must be more like Jesus.

MJ

                My best friend growing up was my cousin Gary. I did not have a brother, so he was as close to a brother as I would have. Some of the best things I ever did as a kid or a teenager, he was a part of. It is also equally true that some of the stupidest things I ever did he was there for those, also. We had a large group of friends, and I always liked think that we made our friends better people. The truth is, we probably did not impact our friends as much as we thought we did. How could we? We really were just like them. We did not have much to give to make them better. I wish we could have been more like a much more famous and important set of cousins that were born 2000 years ago. They not only affected their friends, but they changed the world with their lives.

                If you have not figured out who the cousins are, they are John the Baptist and Jesus. They were born nearly six months apart. The story of their birth announcements is found in Luke 1: 8-38. An angel came to John’s father Zechariah and later to Mary. As you read the passage, there are four truths that the angel is announcing not just to the parents, but also to the whole world.

                The first truth is the truth of hope. Both John and, more importantly, Jesus were bringing a hope into the world that had never been seen. Before their births, God had not spoken to Israel in over 400 years. The last words He spoke were found in the book of Malachi, which also happens to be the last book of the Old Testament. The book of Malachi is centered on a series of questions. God would point out their sins, and they would question whether or not what God was saying was true. The Israelites were, at best, halfway serving God. They made an appearance of doing holy things, while holding back from God what was his. He was warning them. His last words were about a prophet that would be coming (John the Baptist) and a warning if they did not change. They did not change, so God punished them. He not only did not speak to them, he sent foreign countries in to take over. After each invasion, the people would look for the promised Messiah who would free them. For four hundred years they searched, and God was silent. The people were losing hope. Then one day an angel appeared and told an old priest that the words of Malachi were being delivered in his son. Then the angel spoke to Mary and told her that the promised King would be her son. Hope was about to be delivered in two cousins.

                The second truth was the truth of the Word of God. The Old Testament made many promises about a Messiah. The people kept looking. Occasionally a person would show up and get the people’s hope up. That person would then fail as a Messiah, and the people were back to square one. It is not hard to imagine that many started looking at the Scriptures as some type of fairy tale meant to keep everyone’s hope up, but never actually delivering on the goods. Half-truths and outright lies would soon take the place of the truth. When lies replace the truth, chaos ensues. We see this today in our country. We have been lied to by politicians, preachers, athletes, and just about everyone else. As I heard one man say many years ago, “[we] would rather climb a tree to tell a lie then stay on the ground and tell the truth.” We have been lied to so many times by so many people we just expect it. This is a terrible way to live. The births of John and Jesus break up the lies. The birth of Jesus fulfills at least fifty distinct prophesies and maybe as many as three hundred. If only nine are fulfilled, it would be like being blindfolded and asked to find a specific marked silver dollar in a state as big as Texas that has been covered two feet deep in silver dollars (https://www.jesusfilm.org/blog-and-stories/old-testament-prophecies.html). They are truths that you can count on and believe in.

                The third truth is the truth that God performs miracles. Something supernatural had to occur for both John and Jesus to be born. John was born to an older couple that had given up hope of ever having a child. God had never promised them that they would, so they probably had given up hope. They may have been making plans to retire and move to Morehead City and spend their final years with just each other. Then an angel showed up and told them they would have a child. Some may say that this is not really a miracle. No laws of nature, or the universe were broken. That is true, but for this to happen, God had to work within the laws he created to do something no one else could do or think could be done. Jesus’ birth was clearly a miracle. God did break the laws of the universe to make this happen. Mary was quite clear that she was a virgin and had never known a man intimately. Childbirth could not happen. It was a miracle. We needed this. We needed not only a savior, but to be reminded just how big a God, God is. We needed to be reminded that the laws of the universe are for us, not Him. We needed to know that nothing is too big for Him, and that He can do whatever He wants to do whenever He wants to do it. The truth of miracles reminds us of the bigness of God, and how much He loves us. He will step outside the laws of the universe to save us.

                The final truth revealed in the births of John and Jesus is about repentance and reconciliation. John was born to preach a very specific sermon. His sermon was one of repentance for forgiveness of sins. He was sent to prepare the way for the Lord (Luke 3:3-4). Before we can ever truly know God and serve Jesus, we must repent of our sins. Fortunately, their births were not just about repentance. It would get frustrating if all we ever had was repentance. The birth of Jesus brought something even greater. He brought reconciliation after repentance. We are made right with God. We are brought back into God’s family that we left when we sinned. We have been reconciled.

These Christmas cousins should remind us of the incredible meaning that Christmas has. It is not just about gifts, lights, trees, and a jolly, old, fat man. There is nothing wrong with any of these in their proper place. Their proper place is behind the story of Jesus. If at any time these things become bigger or more important than Jesus, we have lost the truth of Christmas. Let us keep our eyes and minds focused on the truth and celebrate what Christmas really means.

MJ

                I do not like pinto beans. I can tolerate them if they are refried and covered in cheese sitting beside a burrito and rice, but all alone out of a pot, I do not like them. This was unfortunate for me growing up because my family loved them. At least twice a month my mom would make a pot of beans with cornbread, and that was dinner. This would be the only nights that I would ever go to bed at least a little hungry. I just could not make myself eat either the beans or the cornbread (and yes, I really am from the South. I have the right to not like certain things even if a Southerner is supposed to. I also don’t like grits – so there.)

            One particular evening, my mother made pinto beans. I had just come home from a particularly brutal football practice. I felt like I was starving. I would have eaten the south end of a north bound mule that evening I was so hungry, but all we had was beans. I got a bowl of beans and a hunk of cornbread, and grudgingly took a bite. In my delirious hunger the beans actually tasted good. I took another bite. It was even better. I ate two bowls of beans. My parents thought I had turned the corner on one of their favorite meals. Alas, that was not to be. The next time she cooked beans I was not as hungry, and they did not taste as good. I have yet to become so hungry again that pintos taste good to me, but that night they filled me up. When you are hungry everything tastes good. You just want to be filled.

            Spiritually, we also get hungry. Over time and with the demands and burdens of this world we start to spiritually dry up. The fire and excitement that we once had for Jesus starts to diminish. The Holy Spirit always remains in us, but we start to miss what he tells us and quit doing what he says. We become dry and hungry. We start to try to do more stuff with our own strength and we begin to stumble more. We just feel like corn stalks that have been in the summer heat with no rain. How do we avoid this?

            Ephesians 5:18 gives us the answer. Paul tells us,” And don't get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit:” The answer is to be filled with the Spirit. The Greek tells us that this is a continuous process. It is saying “be being filled with the Spirit.” It is like a never-ending drink that only needs to be topped off daily. We are filled with the Spirit at salvation (and he never leaves) and we are refilled throughout our lives. It is this filling that prevents us from drying up and withering down to nothing.

            When was the last time you allowed yourself to be filled with the Spirit? Just as the Greek tells us that it is a continuous process, it also tells us that we can reject the filling. It is our choice. God is not going to force Himself on us. We can only be filled if we allow it. If we want to be filled, it is easy. It is a matter of just asking for it and doing what comes next in Ephesians 5. We “19 address [ing] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Not only is being filled with the Spirit, it is also fun. It is having Church the way God desires for us to, and the cool part is that this Church is not relegated only to Sunday mornings. It is any time we want it to be. It can be when we are all alone, when we gather in a service, when we go on a trip or retreat, or anytime. The truth is that God simply always wants us to be filled with Him. Quit trying to make it through without Him. I know how easy it is to get bogged down with the daily tasks and get tired. I know how easy it is to get so busy that you quit getting filled. Don’t confuse work with worship (http://shallow-well.org/index.php/online-sermons/sermon/161-worship-then-work). Work is important, but not as important as worship. Worship leads to filling. Filling leads to being more useful and productive. We must all take the time to refill. Think of worship as a vacation for the soul. It recharges you and gets you ready for the next event. Please, take every opportunity to be filled with the Spirit. I promise you that it is worth it.

MJ

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