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                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

                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

            On my bookcase, in my office, is one of my favorite pictures (funny how we put our favorite pictures in our favorite places, so everyone can see them.) It is 15 years old and has travelled to three different states and been in at least four offices. It was from one of the top ten days of my life. It is a picture of me in a cap and gown receiving my diploma from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It proves that I do have moments of academic intelligence. I worked hard for that diploma, and I am very proud of it. The three years it took to get that degree were three great years (I met Jennifer and married her during that time.)

            As I look at that picture, I am also sad. I am not alone in the picture. The president of the seminary is handing me the diploma. The man was one of my theological and spiritual heroes. He was one of the main reasons that I went there. In fact, the first time that I ever visited Wake Forest, NC, I got lost and turned around in a driveway. The driveway belonged to him. He introduced himself, and showed me where I needed to go. He was very gracious to me, and seemed glad that I was coming to the seminary. I doubt he would remember that, or remember me at all. He was a man that fought many hard battles, at a great cost to himself, to help keep his denomination away from liberalism that was threatening to undermine the Bible, and the church. To many people like myself, he really was a hero.

            I am sad because recently that man fell. Through pride, power, and several really bad decisions, he lost a prestigious position. He will probably never have another prominent position again. His failures were his. No one made him do what he did, and many people tried to warn him, but he did not listen or change. So, on my bookcase is a picture of me with a fallen hero. Sadly, he is not the first one of my heroes to fall. Each one has stunk, and stung me.

            What are we to do when our heroes topple? What are we to do when one of our heroes is a spiritual leader that falls? How do we handle this? In situations like this, I think about King David and his sin with Bathsheba. Here was a man “after God’s own heart” who not only committed adultery (at the least), and then covered it up with murder. A great man had truly fallen. He thought he got away with it, until the prophet confronted him. David then repented of his sin, and went about trying to fix his mistake. God forgave him, but what about the people that were hurt by his actions? How did they, and how do we handle this?

            There are a few ways for us to handle it. First, we must start with prayer. We must pray for the hero who fell. Pray that he or she will repent, and then work to be restored and to restore those who were hurt. Second, we must constantly be watching to make sure that we are not turning our heroes into idols. Every single human alive has the terrible tendency to sin. If we start to worship them, we will always end up hurt. No person is meant to be a god to us. When we make them one, we will end up with a broken god. Heroes are fine. We all need people to look up to and emulate. Making them idols is not fine. Third, we must not ask too much out of our heroes. We should not worship them, nor should we expect them to be something that they cannot be. They are just as fallible as we are. When we put them on pedestals that they do not deserve or ask to be put on, we are only making it a matter of time before they fall off it. Fourth, we should pray for them. Pray before the fall comes. Pray that they will not fall. Pray that they will have the strength to not make the same bad decisions that others have made. Finally, we need to make sure that the person we have as a hero is worthy of being one. Just because they can do something really well does not mean that they should become heroes. Sometimes these people are jerks. They are bound to stumble (something about pride and a fall.) We need to make sure our heroes are worthy of it.

            As I look at that picture, part of me wants to remove it. My hero’s poor decisions have caused many people to look bad. His actions are not defendable. It hurts to say that, and for him to take up valuable real estate in my office (I’m sure I can squeeze another picture of my family in that place) is a bit disconcerting. With that said, I have decided the picture will stay. It will stay because it shows one of the best days of my life and I will not let his mistakes tarnish that. It will also stay to remind me that heroes have clay feet, and sometimes the cracks in those feet show up when you least expect it. I will use it to hopefully protect myself. I will try to be courageous in what I believe in as he was, but I will also not let pride and power drive me. I will learn from him, again.

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

                The church I grew up in just celebrated its 150th anniversary. If my math is correct, that means it started in 1868 (Shallow Well began in 1831.) That church was well over 100 years old before I ever stepped foot inside of it. It (and Shallow Well) began before cars were being built in America and before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk. It has seen two world wars, man walking on the moon, and the internet. When it started the church was the center point of the community and its leaders were also the leaders of the community who were highly respected.

                Man, have things changed since then. The church (all churches) no longer carries the same importance and its leaders are not highly thought of in the community. Attendance in churches in America seems to be declining, and the thoughts, values, and beliefs of the church are ridiculed. Some days it seems that the church is not long for this country. Research tells us about 4000 churches close their doors every year for good which means almost 11 churches a day stop being a church.

                You can drive through many cities and find closed church properties for sale for cheap. You can also find closed retail stores for sale. What were once major companies like Kmart and Toys R Us, have declared bankruptcy and all that is left (or will be left) are their buildings, just like churches. There is a big difference between the retail stores and the church. The retail stores will never open back up again.

                The decline of the church is actually greatly exaggerated. The same research that tells us that 4000 churches a year are closing their doors, also tells us that more than 4000 new churches are started each year (in 2014, 3700 churches closed and over 4000 opened.) These churches are not simply taking the members from other churches. According to this research, 42% of the members of these new churches had never attended a church or had not been in a long time (https://www.charismanews.com/us/53715-study-thousands-of-churches-closing-every-year-but-there-is-a-silver-lining).

                The news about churches should really not be surprising to us. The church is a God ordained institution. Jesus made it clear where the church comes from and how long it will last. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus takes the response of Peter about who Jesus is and says to him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The great thing for us is that the church is not built upon Peter, who is a man, but upon who Jesus is. The gates of hell will not ever destroy the church. Churches may close and its leaders may be ridiculed, but when the church is built upon Jesus, and shows and shares Jesus it will not lose its power. It may appear that we are losing influence, but, if so, it is because we have lost sight of Jesus. When He becomes our vision and our direction, then even the gates of Hell cannot stop it.

                The interesting thing about Jesus saying the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it, gates do not march off into battle. They are stationary. You would attack a gate, but not the other way around. Jesus is telling us that a church will never be destroyed, and that a church is always moving forward. It is attacking the very strongholds of Satan, not the other way. A church that lasts is a church that fights, not each other, or other people for that matter, but fights against Satan.

                I love the church. I always have. My best memories growing up usually involve the church or friends I met through it. I sometimes get upset with people in the church (as well as people getting upset with me), but I will never stop loving it. It excites me to see old churches still around. It also excites me to see new churches start. I get excited thinking about the possibilities that are in front of Shallow Well. I know that the best of what we do is when we are moving forward and winning and teaching people about Jesus. Let us never stop attacking the gates of Hell and doing the Lord’s work.

MJ

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