January 2019 Annoucements

OUR SINCERE SYMPATHY TO JIM CAUDLE, whose sister, Bonnie Kitterman, passed away last week.

DOROTHY SEVERTSON has moved to Sunnyview Care Center in Ankeny. She would enjoy your visit. You can send cards to Dorothy in care of Susan Cook, 1511 NW Northwood Drive, Ankeny, IA 50023.

BIBLE CHALLENGE: Thanks to everyone who participated. All five teams performed so well that all will enjoy pizza together this morning. Thanks to Rick Murray for organizing the event. Our next challenge will cover Genesis chapter 1-12 on March 17.

DO YOU CROCHET? CHINA SERVICE VENTURES NEEDS YOUR HELP: China Service Ventures is looking for people to crochet red heart bookmarks to be given to “left-behind” children in Henan, China. They have provided pattern and instructions for the bookmarks. Please talk to Pastor Kathy if you can help.

NEEDED: One or two volunteers are needed to oversee the church library. If God is calling you to do this, please talk to Pastor Kathy.

ATTENTION GUITAR PLAYERS – Guitar lessons will begin on Sunday, February 10, in two groups. Those students not involved in Sunday School will meet following our worship service, at about 10:45. Sunday School students will meet at 11:30.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY CONNECTIONS magazine is available on the table in the narthex. Feel free to take one home and read it.

PORTALS OF PRAYER for January-March 2019 are available on the table in the narthex.

THURSDAY MORNING WOMEN’S BIBLE STUDY is beginning a new DVD study based on the book “Who Is This Man?” by John Ortberg. As we go through this study, we’ll discover the influence and challenge Jesus has on history as well as on each of our lives. All women in the congregation are welcome and encouraged to join us at 10:00 AM on Thursday mornings. Come and grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.

SUNDAY MORNING PRAYER MINISTERS will gather in the Fellowship Room for a time of prayer following our worship service this morning. If you are presently involved in our prayer ministry, or if you would like to be, join us. Anyone in need of prayer is encouraged to come and receive.

“LOOSE CHANGE TO LOOSEN CHAINS: Our 8th grade confirmands are collecting loose change to benefit victims of human trafficking. All proceeds go toward the work of the International Justice Mission. They have set a goal of $3000.00. So far they have collected $1,882.34.

WINGS OF REFUGE CAPITAL CAMPAIGN continues; donations may be made payable to Bethany. Our goal is $4,000.00. To date, we have collected $2,865.00.

ALUMINUM CAN TABS continue to be collected. Tabs go to the Rochester, Minnesota, Ronald McDonald House, where they benefit the families of seriously ill children hospitalized at Mayo.

RIVERSIDE LUTHERAN BIBLE CAMP ANNUAL MEETING will be held at 2:30 PM on Sunday, February 10, in the Riverside Dining Hall.

THE ANNUAL MEETING OF THE CONGREGATION WILL BE HELD ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 3, immediately following our worship service. Lunch will be served by the Mission Committee following the meeting.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

It’s Sunday morning and all around the area—all around the world—people are gathered together in churches for what we call worship. We all know that Christians are supposed to go to church. But do we know why?

Do we know why are we supposed to come together regularly for worship? What’s the purpose? Is there a purpose? Does it really matter whether we come or not? There are a lot of people in the world who call themselves Christians who don’t think church is a necessary part of following Jesus.  Maybe you’re one of them.

In a recent survey by Ligonier Ministries, a majority of American adults said that worshiping alone or with family is a valid replacement for church. Only 30% disagreed.

Some think that the purpose of church is to hear a sermon—so they decide that sitting in front of a computer or television screen can fulfill their “church” requirement.

So why are we here? And does it really matter?

Today is the first Sunday in a new year—and, for most of us, a new year brings with it the idea of a fresh start. A time to stop doing some of those things we know aren’t good for us and start doing some of those things we’ve been promising ourselves we’d do.

Because most of us know that there’s a lot of room for improvement in our lives. I know that for me personally, i’m not looking just for a few improvement here and there—I could use a whole new me. A me that’s healthy, well rested, that always gets enough exercise; a me that’s disciplined, compassionate,  always loving; a me that’s a better wife and mother, a better pastor; a me that’s loved by others,  generous, joyful, thankful. A me who never says the wrong thing, a me who never forgets to always keep an eternal perspective. There’s just one problem—me. I am my own worst enemy. I understand completely what the apostle Paul means when he writes to Timothy, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, although formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy … and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. … Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (I Timothy 1:12-15).

But what does this have to do with church, you may be wondering? It has everything to do with church. Because while you and I are thinking about ways we can improve ourselves, we forget that we’re created beings. We forget that there is a creator God who is holy, good and all-powerful. We forget that despite the fact that we never wanted a divine authority over us, despite the fact that we wanted to live our lives according to our own rules and what we thought would make us happy, that despite all this, in the midst of our rebellion, God sent His Son to be born as a man and to live the life you and I should have lived in obedience to our heavenly Father. God’s Son, Jesus, died on the cross for our sins. The sprinkling of the precious blood of Christ forgives us of our sin and cleanses us from guilt. But there’s still more—then God sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts to set us apart as true children of God.

The Ligonier study shows that for many of us Christianity is about a certain lifestyle or refraining from certain behaviors. It shows that for others of us, it’s about politics or even just being conservative. But Scripture tells us something very different. The Bible tells us that to be a Christian is to turn from our sin and know the grace and peace that can be ours in abundance. This is grace from Jesus Christ and the peace that God provides between us and the Father through the shed blood of the Son.

But there’s still more—70% of us have forgotten a vitally important part. God doesn’t just save us and then say, “OK now, you’re forgiven—so go out and live your individual life.” What Scripture tells us is that we’ve saved into the church. We’re born into a whole new identity, a corporate identity.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and the even more miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. But God’s miraculous birth stories don’t end there. Through the work of His Son Jesus, God birthed something completely new—a new body, a body that we call the church. Not another religion, but a living, breathing organism, the body of Christ in His pre-incarnate supernatural form. The resurrected Jesus returned to His heavenly home, but then He sent His Spirit to live in the heart of every believer, connecting them in a whole new way. Because for the first time in all of human history, sinful human beings have the opportunity to have the Spirit of God living permanently inside of them.

For the first time in human history, God’s creatures—you and me—are able to experience to a small degree what God has experienced through all eternity—what it is to be spiritually connected to another.

Just as God’s identity is corporate—Father, Son and Holy Spirit living continuously in relationship with one another—so too have we now received a corporate identity. Connected through God’s Spirit to God Himself and connected to our brothers and sisters in the body through the Spirit of God living in each one of us.  

The church is not a social club. It’s not a place to motivate the faithful to do good works. It’s not a place to come and put in some time on Sunday morning so that you can feel good about yourself for the rest of the week.

The church is a place where Christians know their real identity as children of God, as part of an eternal family. A place where Jesus Himself tells us our relationships with one another are actually more important than our relationships with our biological family because of how God has chosen us in the gospel.

It’s a radical idea. It’s an idea that some of us don’t really like. It’s so radical that some of us have actually rejected it.

And so, brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to be focused on self-improvement projects in this new year. All we need to do is recognize our true identity in Christ Jesus. Together we have been born again through the miracle of the resurrection. And God has promised to witness to His great power and love through us, the church, His Body. He has promised it and He will accomplish it—we can’t mess it up or stop it. He’s not waiting for us to become perfect, He can and will accomplish great things for us and through us despite all our failures and weaknesses—if we will but let Him.

And so as we begin a new year, I wonder … how might our life together change if we really lived in this reality? Might we be less fearful? Willing to take more risks for the sake of the gospel? Might we be more bold in sharing Christ with others? Make it more of a priority to be fully present with God’s people as we gather here to sing, to pray, to hear His Word?

The apostle Paul, because of the work that Jesus had done in him, understood clearly what it meant to be called into the church, into the Body of Christ. Understood it as a great privilege. Understood it so clearly that Paul devoted the rest of his life to sharing the gospel, planting churches, teaching God’s people what an incredible gift they had received. Helping them to live in a way that would glorify the Holy Name of almighty God.

Helping them to understand that when we pray to our Father in heaven, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” what we’re really praying is that God will use us, His church in this particular place, to do His will, to bring His kingdom to those unsaved people that He has placed in our lives and in our neighborhoods.

Sadly, however, we are all too often looking in other directions, thinking about other things. Even in the first century, this was the case. There were problems in the early church just as there are in the 21st century church—problems because, despite the fact that we have been born into this new and miraculous life in Christ, we’re still living in our sinful human bodies. God knew that this was the case. And so He gave us His Word to teach us, to show us the new life that’s available to every one of us.

Timothy was Paul’s spiritual son, a young man that Paul disciples, a young man who was now the pastor of the Ephesian church—a church where there are problems. So Paul writes a letter to Timothy to encourage him, to instruct him. In the first chapter Paul addresses the fact that there are people in the congregation teaching false doctrine, creating controversy and division—and destroying the witness of the church. Instead of working together to bring the gospel to the world, the people are caught up in finger-pointing, in gossip, in wanting to be right. All of the energy of the church is directed inward instead of outward.

This is not what Jesus intended for His church—and Paul knows it. But Paul also knows that all renewal in the church and in the world flows by God’s grace from God’s presence, that it’s not something we generate or control.

In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was where God could be found. It was the place where heaven and earth intersected. In the 47th chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel describes a vision that he’s received from God. He sees a river—the river of God—flowing from the altar in the temple. The river, as it flows outward, gets deeper and wider. And the man in Ezekiel’s vision tells him that “Wherever this water goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. … Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Engelaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:9-10). The river flows to the Dead Sea, which now, in his vision, is no longer dead. The fresh water flowing from the temple has transformed that dead area into a living lake teeming with every kind of fish.

500 years later, Jesus, in John’s gospel, stands in the temple and cries out, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me … ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). Jesus is the source of this living water that brings life to the dead.

Paul knows that Ezekiel’s vision is a picture of the church at work in the world. But Paul also knows that building a building and putting a sign on it that says “church” doesn’t make it a church. He knows that even holding services that we call “worship services” don’t make us a church. Paul knows that God’s church is never a building, but always a people. A people created and called by God to bring the salvation message to the world as Jesus Himself did—to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near.

But the Ephesian church is so busy disputing with one another within the body that it’s not doing what it was created to do. And Paul has written to tell Timothy how to correct this. The first thing the church needs to do in this saving process, Paul says, is pray. He writes, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (I Timothy 2:8).

“Don’t be angry.” That’s Paul’s advice for becoming a prayerful congregation—because he is clearly talking about congregational, not individual, prayer. “Don’t be angry.”

The way to stop the anger and division, Paul says, is to pray. Because prayer is one of the things that shapes the identity of a group. If you study the book of Acts carefully, you will find that for the early church, prayer is consistently a major part of the Christian community, a practice that invariably leads to the expansion of the community.

Perhaps this is because a community that prays for the evangelization of the world is a community that is open to the world and welcoming of those outside. And perhaps it is because evangelistic activity is most successful when it follows evangelistic prayer. So Paul says, in every way possible—supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings—pray for the world.

While prayer for those in authority is not the main thing in this passage, it is singled out for special mention—Paul has learned firsthand that God is willing and able to intervene even in worldly affairs. In Acts 19:23-41, we’re told that while Paul was in Ephesus, his teaching made people so angry that a riot occurred. It was “the town clerk” who intervened to “quiet” the crowd that was threatening to hinder the work of the gospel.

So Paul says that we are to “pray … for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (2:2). We’re to pray because “God our Savior desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4).  Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ concern is always for sinners, for outsiders, for tax collectors—these are the people coming to the early church. These are the people that God has called into His church today. Which is why we need to, “in every place … pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

It’s hard to remain bitter and divided when you are together in prayer. But Paul’s not saying that just any prayer will do. He’s telling Timothy—and us—that our prayer needs to be outward-looking, prayer for the evangelization of the world. For everyone in the world. Twice in this passage, in 2:1 and again in 2:4, Paul calls us to pray for “all people.” Because “God our Savior desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4).

Prayer for the world—for those outside of the church. The focus inside the church is never to be about internal disagreements and problems—it’s always to be about the salvation of the world. And apparently united corporate prayer is a big part of God’s salvation plan, perhaps the most important part.

Paul knows that the church’s reputation is crucial to its witness. He knows that no one will pay any attention to the testimony of people who are angry, who can’t even get along with one another. And he knows that it’s only when we pray together that we’ll receive the necessary grace to live in such a way that we’ll gain the respect of the outside world and adorn the gospel.

How are we doing with that? How’s our reputation?

The purpose of the church, the reason that you and I have been saved, is that we be in prayer for the entire world. Prayer that might result in action—but never action that comes before prayer.

Jesus said that when we pray, we should pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

This is the purpose of the church.

How are we doing with that?

In her book The Prayer Saturated Church, author Cheryl Sacks, who was for many years a public school teacher, writes of praying one morning for our schools. “Oh God,” she cried out, “Please return prayer to the classrooms of schools across our nation.”

Suddenly, she says, the Holy Spirit responded to her prayer. His words seemed almost audible as they rang through the air: “Why don’t you ask that prayer will return to the church?”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we ask what we can do to become more effective in outreach, more effective in our mission.

Paul gives us the answer. Jesus gives us the answer: pray. Pray not just individually about our own personal concerns. But gather together regularly to pray corporately for the big issues facing our world. For the many, many people who do not yet know Jesus.

We bemoan the problems of human trafficking, of abortion, of the ineffectiveness of our government, of corruption in business and government, of problems between nations. We have a government that is currently shut down due to inability to come to agreement over budget issue.

Could it be that the church is responsible for many of these problems? Could it be that the reason God isn’t at work doing something about all these problems is because we haven’t cried out for Him to do something?

When a visitor comes into our church, would they be immediately aware that prayer is happening here?

Jim Cymbala wrote in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: “If we call upon the Lord, He has promised in His Word to answer, to bring the unsaved to Himself, to pour out His Spirit among us. If we don’t call upon the Lord, He has promised nothing—nothing at all. It’s as simple as that. No matter what I preach or what we claim to believe in our heads, the future will depend upon our times of prayer. This is the engine that will drive the church.”

In the January newsletter, I called for prayer to be our primary focus in this new year. We are in a time of many challenges. Some are new and ongoing mission opportunities being brought before us by the Holy Spirit. Others are attempts at division and distraction that are being brought by the devil.

And so as we begin this new year, are we prepared to live as though we really believe that God’s promises were fulfilled in His Son, Jesus. What would Abraham, Daniel, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and David say if they could see us today? With the salvation that we have realized in Jesus? With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, no longer a law that is external but a law now written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit? The church, God’s people, who are actually a part of the family of God?

Yes, we the people in God’s church are weak. We’re culturally out of touch. Sometimes we’re even boring. But the prophets of God foresaw a day when God’s people would be redeemed, and we are that redeemed community. We are no longer defined by our failures, our sins, our weaknesses, or even our politics. We’re defined by our new identity in Christ’s resurrection and our salvation in Him. Together we gather to remind one another that this world is not our home. We are elect exiles. Chosen to be a part of God’s forever family. But strangers to the world in its rebellion against God.

Do you believe that this is really true? And if you do, does that change your goals for this year? Will we be a people more willing to focus on God’s will: on “His kingdom come, His will be done.” Even if that’s not easy? Will you begin simply by writing down the names of two people that you will commit to praying for regularly? Two people in your life—friends, family, coworkers, neighbors—people whose salvation is not yet assured. Two people who desperately need to hear the good news that you have available to share with them.

Two people—each one of us. A first step. As we go forward in this new year, may we grow in our faith, in our relationship with Jesus Christ, in our relationship with one another. Looking ever outward, never inward.

Let us pray.

Life-changing decisions

Have you ever been going along, just living your life, thinking things were going great, and all of the sudden, out of nowhere, something happens that changes everything? That makes you reconsider everything you’ve ever believed, every goal you’ve ever set for yourself? Something that requires you to make a life-changing decision.

That’s what happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, a man that’s often pretty much forgotten in the Christmas story. The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about him—he’s mentioned as part of the Christmas story and then again briefly when Jesus is twelve years old. After that … nothing. It’s assumed that Joseph died before Jesus began His public ministry—that perhaps the reason Jesus waited until he was 30 years old to begin that ministry is because He needed to carry on the family carpentry business until His brothers were ready to take over.

When we meet Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, he’s engaged to a young girl named Mary. Under Jewish law, an engagement was legally binding—the first step in the marriage process. Following the engagement, it was the task of the husband-to-be to prepare a place for the couple to live and to be sure that he was well enough established in his occupation to support a family. Only then did the wedding take place and the bride come to live with her new husband.

So in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is looking forward with anticipation to taking Mary into his home as his wife. Then one day Mary shows up and says, “Joseph I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’m pregnant. The good news is that I haven’t been unfaithful to you. An angel came and told me that I’ve found favor with God and that the Holy Spirit is going to give me a baby who will be the Son of God.  I know this probably sounds pretty unbelievable, but that’s what happened.”

We know that Mary shared this news with Joseph because Matthew makes it clear that he knew about the baby before the angel ever appeared to him in his dream. Knew about it and was struggling to decide what he should do.

Before Mary shared her news with him, Joseph’s life was going great. And now suddenly everything is collapsing around him. And—this is important—none of it is his fault. Nothing that he has done or failed to do has contributed to this enormous problem that he’s suddenly faced with.

What is he going to do? What can he do?

The Bible only tells us one thing about Joseph: in v 19 of our gospel, we’re told that Joseph is a just man—or, as some translations put it, a righteous man. The Hebrew word that’s translated here as “just” or “righteous” means “to completely and totally obey the law of Moses.”

So what Matthew is telling us is that Joseph was a man totally committed to doing the right thing. And for a first century Jewish man, the right thing was all about obeying the law. We can be certain that Joseph never kept the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to earn a little extra money. We can be certain that everyone knew that if you hired Joseph to do your carpentry project, it would be well done and his bill would be fair. So business was good and the future was looking great. 

Everybody knew that Joseph was a righteous man. People looked up to Joseph—nobody would have ever even thought about inviting him to a party at the home of a tax collector. Nobody would ever have seen Joseph talking to a prostitute.

All his life, Joseph has done everything right—he’s built a solid reputation for himself as a just man. And then he learns that the girl he’s engaged to is going to have a baby—and they’re not married yet. Joseph doesn’t know who the father is, but he knows for certain that it’s not him. He also knows that as soon as word gets around—and he knows that word will get around—nobody’s going to believe that he’s not the father.

What should he do? Surely he’s praying for an answer—but God isn’t helping.

Joseph is a man whose entire life, whose entire identity is based on his righteousness, on his observation of the Law. And the law has some very definite things to say about what should happen to someone in Mary’s condition. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if a woman engaged to be married is unfaithful, “then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing …. You shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Joseph surely knows this— but he doesn’t want to make a public example of Mary. Even though he is a just man, he doesn’t want to expose her to what the law demands. At the same time, he knows that when the other righteous men in Nazareth find out about Mary, they’ll be sure to point out to him what the law requires.  And he knows that under the law of Moses, a just man should never even hesitate—but Joseph hesitated. He couldn’t bring himself to do this to Mary.

Her life is on the line. Joseph’s reputation is on the line.

Joseph is struggling—really struggling. What should he do? He loved Mary—but really … an angel? A virgin birth? Really? Righteous men don’t lie—and they can’t tolerate lying in others. So now she’s not only pregnant but she’s trying to cover up what happened with lies?

Finally Joseph makes up his mind. We’re told that, “being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Because an engagement in Joseph’s day was legally binding, the only way out was to get a divorce. This was the only way Joseph could think of to provide some protection for Mary and still maintain his status as a just man.

But then, we’re told that “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

So … what I wonder when I read this passage is why? Why did God make Joseph go through that time of struggle before He sent the angel? God could have sent the angel directly from telling Mary that God was calling her to be the mother of His Son to fill Joseph in on what was happening? Why did Joseph have to experience all that anxiety, all that fear?

Or, better yet, if God wanted Mary to be the mother of His Son, why didn’t He just wait until Mary and Joseph were already married? Why couldn’t He have avoided what He surely knew would be a huge scandal? A scandal that would follow Mary and Joseph for the rest of their lives?

Could it be that removing anxiety and fear wasn’t God’s number one priority for Joseph? And if that’s the case, could it be that removing anxiety and fear isn’t His number one goal for us either? Could it be that God was trying to give Joseph a new understanding of what it means to be a just or righteous man? Could it be that God was using the time between when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and the appearance of the angel to grow Joseph? To prepare him for the future that God had prepared for him?

Could it be that the question isn’t really “are you struggling,” but rather “What are you doing about your struggles?”

What do you do when life throws trouble your way? Have a pity party? Feel sorry for yourself? Wonder what kind of God would allow you to suffer? Be angry with God?

Or are you trusting Him enough to know that whatever is happening, God has a reason—and a plan? That you might have to wrestle with Him to come up with answers—and that those answers might not come immediately. And when the answer if not what you wanted to hear, are you willing to obey?

One of the very clear messages of Scripture that we have forgotten—or maybe just ignored—is that God never intended our lives to be just about us. Jesus taught this through every single thing He did or said.

God knew that Mary and Joseph were engaged when He placed His Son in Mary’s womb. He knew that this whole virgin birth thing would involve Joseph. Joseph wasn’t just some collateral damage that God had forgotten about. Joseph was just as much a part of God’s plan as Mary was—a part of the plan that God had set in motion at the beginning of time.

So God had to prepare Joseph—he had to grow him. He had to show him where his life needed some correction. God wanted Joseph to struggle—because in his struggling, Joseph was forced to count the cost. He was forced to consider whether he was willing to let go of whatever he had allowed to be more important in his life than God’s will for him.

Because Joseph was a just man. Was that a bad thing? Of course not. But have you ever considered that sometimes even good things can become sin? Joseph was a man who up to this point had made righteousness his highest goal. God wants our highest goal to be obedience to His will. And his will is often very different from ours.

God allowed Joseph to struggle because struggle is what Joseph needed to be ready to hear and obey God. Joseph was waiting for God to tell him what to do, but, as often happens, when we think we’re waiting for God, what’s really happening is that God is waiting for us to be ready to receive whatever it is that He knows we need.

Allow Mary to be stoned to death or marry her and allow the reputation that he had so carefully built be destroyed? What should he do? Joseph had to struggle until he reached that point of desperation, that point where he cried out, as he surely must have, “I don’t know what to do God!”, God said, “Yes!” “Finally—now you’re ready to listen to me.”

Then, and only then, did God send the angel to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Why would Joseph be afraid to marry this young woman he was already engaged to? Certainly part of his fear would be about the fact that he’d be breaking God’s law. But probably the real reason was that Joseph was afraid of what people would think, of what people would say. Joseph was afraid of losing his reputation, of losing his good standing in the community.

Joseph knew that if he didn’t believe Mary when she told him what had happened, it was pretty likely that nobody else was going to believe her either. They wouldn’t believe her and they wouldn’t believe him. He knew that there was no way people would believe that an angel showed up and caused a child to be conceived in the body of a virgin teenaged girl. He knew that if he married her, his life would never be the same—some people would say his life would be ruined. He knew that most, if not all, of his friends would no longer want to have anything to do with him. He’d probably lose a lot of business. And he’d lose the love and admiration and respect of everyone—maybe even his own family.

If Joseph committed himself to Mary and her child—to the one who would be called Jesus—he would do so at enormous personal cost.

But Joseph did what the angel commanded him. He took Mary home as his wife and, in v25, it says that he named the baby. For a Jewish man to name a baby in first century Israel was to legally declare that this child was his. By naming Mary’s baby, Joseph was making a deliberate decision to bind his future to the lives of Mary and her child. He did so knowing that Mary would be forever known as the woman who’d had an illegitimate child. In Mark 6, when the adult Jesus returns to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, the people call Him “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Joseph is probably dead by now, but even if the father died, people in Israel always referred to a man as the son of his father.

So even years later, Joseph’s reputation has still not recovered. His days of being known as a righteous man ended the day he took Mary as his wife.

Maybe God had a reason for doing things this way. Later, Jesus will call twelve men to follow Him. He’ll talk about the need to count the cost. Luke tells us in chapter 14 of his gospel that no one would ever begin to build a tower without first sitting “down and counting the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” He’s saying that we must be prepared to finish what we start. When God calls, we must count the cost of leaving one’s family behind, of leaving one’s home, job, friends. The cost might include giving up favorite leisure activities, or even just time.

There’s another man in the Bible whose name was Saul. He was the most righteous of the righteous until one day he was knocked to the ground by the Lord as he was on his was to Damascus. Saul was blinded by God for three days until God sent a man named Ananias to him. Ananias told Saul what God has told him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

God changed that man’s name to Paul and when Paul turned his life over to Jesus, everything changed. Paul went from being the most righteous man around, to being beaten and imprisoned and eventually beheaded. 

Could it be that God still works this way? Could it be that the reason God chose Joseph, the reason that we have so little information about Joseph, is because Joseph was such an ordinary man? An ordinary man living a simple life in a small town—a man not much different from you or me. And could it be that if God had this plan to use Joseph for the advancement of God’s kingdom, that He has a plan for you and for me for that same purpose?

Could it be that God never intended our lives to be all about us? That we were created for more? For something much greater than ourselves?

Maybe you’re confused or anxious or uncertain about something right now. Maybe you’re struggling with something and wondering why God is allowing this to happen to you. Maybe it’s your health or your finances or your job or a relationship. Maybe, like Joseph, something has turned your life upside down—maybe this is happening despite the fact that you’ve always tried to do the right thing. Happening through no fault of your own.

Maybe God is trying to get your attention. Trying prepare you for something new in your life, something you don’t even know about yet. Wanting you to recognize what you’ve placed ahead of Him in your life. Especially if that something might be something good: your family, your reputation. Or something not so good: a belief that God cares more about the righteous than He does about the unrighteous. Cares more about your certainty that you’re right than He does about someone that you’re certain is wrong. Cares more about your comfort than He does about growing you into the person He wants you to be.

That’s what was happening with Joseph. God was teaching him to count the cost—and to recognize that what God was offering was far better than anything Joseph might have been trying to build for himself.

In our American culture, we don’t take these words of Jesus seriously. Count the cost … be prepared to renounce all that you have. If you’re not willing to do this, Jesus say, you cannot be His disciple.

We have only to look at Joseph to see what it can cost to be obedient to God. Joseph surely knew he would lose his reputation and his good standing in the community. Did he realize that when he traveled to Bethlehem with Mary for the census, that no one would be willing even to give them a room for the night? This was Bethlehem, the place from which all of Joseph’s family came; it must have been filled with relatives. But only the stable, perhaps offered by an innkeeper who himself had compassion for the couple. And then when Herod ordered all the baby boys in the region two years old and younger to be killed, Joseph had to take his family and flee by night to Egypt. Surely none of this was part of the plan that Joseph had for his life.

But he did it. He followed wherever God led. God’s purpose for Joseph was that he care for Mary and her child—and Joseph did that.

This is God’s plan for every one of us. He does not ask us to be perfect or good. He simply asks us to be His. Nowhere does He promise that it will be easy. Because it is only through testing that we grow in our trust of God.

When we were at the LCMC conference in October, we talked about something called “Holy discontent.” Holy discontent is being dissatisfied with the way things are—the way things are in our own spiritual lives, the way things are in our church, even the way things are in our world.

Holy discontent is rooted in a desire to see the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. It’s rooted in knowing just how very far we are from seeing that happen.

Joseph, as far as we know, was completely content with the way his life was going—until the Holy Spirit caused his fiancée to become pregnant before the wedding. After that was a serious time of discontent—but I think that when we meet Joseph in heaven someday, he’ll tell us that his decision to obey God was the best decision he ever made.

Are we content with things as they are? With the world as it is? As we begin a new year, as we begin three days of concentrated and committed prayer, this seems like a really good time to consider these questions. To struggle if necessary to know God’s purpose and plan for us—both individually and as a congregation.

Are we content to know that our marriage is good even when we know that our neighbor’s is not?

Are we content to have our children do well in school when other children do not?

Are we content to know that we have enough to eat when others in our neighborhood do not?

Are we content with the role of the church in the world? With the role of this church in our community?

Are we content with how well we know Jesus? With how much of Him we have allowed in our life?

Are we desperate enough for more of God in our life to cry out, “Lord, help me! I don’t know what to do?” and then listen and learn.

May this new year be the year when each one of us, like Joseph, discovers that God’s will for us is greater and more glorious than anything we might imagine for ourselves. Let us pray.

Life forever changed

More than 2000 years ago, God sent the angel Gabriel to a young girl in the town of Nazareth to tell her that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of His Son. The story in Luke 1 is filled with miracles: an angel appearing to Mary, a baby conceived simply by the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived in a young woman who is still a virgin; her cousin Elizabeth conceives a child in her old age. But I think there’s another miracle here that we tend to overlook—it’s Mary’s response to the angel.

We know very little about Mary. She’s a teenaged girl engaged to be married to, as far as we can tell, the man of her dreams. She might have been as young as 13 o 14, as girls often married very young in ancient Israel. Once a couple became engaged, the husband-to-be would have to prepare a place for the couple to live and be sure that he was able to support a family before the wedding could take place. Mary and Joseph were surely making lots of plans for their life together—plans that certainly did not include a pre-wedding pregnancy.

It is in the midst of all this that the angel Gabriel shows up to tell Mary the plan that God has for her life—a plan that is completely different from Mary’s. And instantly, all her plans are destroyed. Because this would change everything.  

She must have had a thousand questions running through her mind. What would Joseph say? Would he still want to marry her? What would happen to her if he didn’t? What would her parents say? Would anyone even believe her? Yet the only question she asks is, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).

“And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).

Gabriel’s answer doesn’t really seem to make things much clearer—what does it even mean to have “the power of the Most High overshadow you”? When would it happen? Would she even know that it had happened?

But Mary’s reply is simply, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your world” (Luke 1:38).

Let it be.

And in these words, we learn a lot more about this young woman. We learn that she has an amazing faith. And an amazing relationship with the Lord—because her response to the angel indicates a total trust in God.

We can be pretty sure that whatever she was doing before that day when the angel showed up, it wasn’t praying that God would make her the mother of His Son.  It wasn’t praying that God would turn her life upside down and destroy her reputation. It wasn’t praying that her firstborn son would be born in a barn.

And yet when the angel came and told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of His Son, she simply said, “Let it be.”

When Mary spoke those words, she surely had no idea just how her life would be forever changed. She might have been imagining palaces and great riches when the angel Gabriel told her that the child she would bear, the child who would be called the “Son of the Most High” would “be given the throne of his father David.” When she was told that “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). At the same time, she had to know that becoming pregnant before marriage would destroy her reputation forever.

And while she had probably not been praying for any of these things to happen, she might have been praying, “Let it be.” She might have been praying regularly, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Because the angel Gabriel did tell her that she had “found favor with God.” What does it mean to find favor with God? We find favor with God when we delight Him. When we’re living in a way that is pleasing to Him—when we’re open to His work in our lives.

In the passage that Angie read earlier, the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us these beautiful words spoken by Jesus to His Father in heaven: “I have come to do your will, O God”—twice Jesus says this. Although God’s will is that Jesus will sacrifice Himself on the cross, His will is NOT—and never has been—that we make sacrifices to Him or bring offerings to Him simply because the law commands it.

We do not find favor with God by keeping His law perfectly—we find favor with God when we love Him above all else. What pleases God is our obedience to Him. Because it is in obedience that we demonstrate the love that we have for Him.

God took far greater pleasure in the surrendered life of One eager to do His will than He took in all the sacrifices and offerings ever brought before Him.

What God wants from us is to hear the words spoken by Mary to the angel: “Let it be.”

“I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

In the day that God brought the people out of Egypt, He gave no instructions about sacrifices until He had first issued this prior command: “Obey My voice.” In other words, sacrifice is no substitute for obedience. No offering is acceptable to God if it is not an expression of loving devotion. God cannot be bought by gifts.

Yes, it was God Himself who instigated the sacrificial system of the OT. But in themselves, sacrifices never brought any pleasure to God—their value was in what they represented, love for the Creator.

When we say, “Let it be,” when we say “Let it be according to Your will, O Lord,” what we’re really saying is, “Let it NOT be according to my will.”

We’re saying that we understand that we have been created by God for a purpose. A purpose that goes all the way back to creation, all the way back to the plans that God had from the very beginning. None of us are here by accident—and all of us are part of God’s plan. A plan so great and so large that we can never fully understand it from our human perspective. But we can be sure that each one of us has a part to play in His plan.

In the very beginning in the book of Genesis, as soon as Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

And then God sacrificed the first animal when “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

God was already planning to send His Son to die for us, to be the final sacrifice. And when the time was right for that to happen, He didn’t just look around to try to find a suitable candidate to be the mother of Jesus. Because He had already created Mary—created her for the purpose of becoming the mother of the Son of God. And somehow, some way, Mary understood that God had a purpose for her—a purpose that involved serving God.

In two places in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17), God speaks to Moses about slaves. God reminds the Israelite people that they were slaves in the land of Egypt until they were redeemed by the Lord God. He says, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. … But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to God … and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever” (Exodus 21:2-6).

God is giving the Israelite people a picture of life with the Lord—all of us are created for a purpose. And that purpose is to serve God. To know God, to really know the One true God, is to love Him. And so as we serve Him, as we grow in relationship to Him, His hope is that we will come to love Him. And that because we love our master, we will have no desire to be released from His service.  

Jesus loved and trusted the Father so completely that He could do nothing other than the Father’s will. And it would appear that His mother Mary also loved and trusted the Lord God. Trusted Him enough to say, “Let it be.”

Trusted Him enough to somehow believe that the plans God had for her were better than the plans that she had for her. That even though the plan presented to her by the angel Gabriel were far beyond her understanding, she could trust in her Lord.

The angel Gabriel also told Mary that her “relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son,” (Luke 1:36), so “Mary arose and went with haste” to visit Elizabeth, who was indeed visibly pregnant. When the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” at the sound of Mary’s voice, Mary seems to be overcome with emotion and she cries out this amazing song of praise:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …”

And so on this last Sunday of Advent, as we have been crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus,” throughout this time of preparation, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior tomorrow, do we trust Him enough to say, “Let it be”?

God is trustworthy. And yet all too often we respond to God the way Zechariah did—with doubt. “How can this be?” “What kind of proof, God, can you give me?” “How do I know this won’t be bad for me?”

How often do we simply say, “No, Lord. That’s not what I want to do”? Because what we really want is to be in charge. Because we don’t really believe that God’s plans are better than our plans. That His plans will bless us. That His plans will give us a life far beyond anything we could ever have imagined.

We so often think that our plans are so much better than anything God might come up with for us—a recent survey found that an astonishing majority of Christians believe that if they really give their lives over to God, His plan for them will be to send them to Africa to be a missionary.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what are we missing when we hang on so tightly to our plans—our plans for our lives, our plans for this church? What opportunities, what blessings have we missed by not allowing ourselves to truly trust in our great and glorious God?

C. S. Lewis in his book The Weight of Glory, writes, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

“We are far too easily pleased,” Lewis wrote. He goes on:

“The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredibly and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination of standing before God, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God … to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But it is so.”

We are far too easily pleased when we long finally for anything less than God, anything less than being used by Him to do His will in whatever way He wishes.

We are far too easily pleased any time we refuse to say to Him, “Let it be.” “Let it be according to your will.”

Mary’s life was far from easy. Her reputation was ruined. She did have to give birth to the Son of God in a stable with only Joseph present to assist. She did have to flee to Egypt as a refugee. But Mary knew the glory of not only serving God according to His will—she gave birth to His Son. She is “blessed among women,” blessed—this is important—because she believed. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her form the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Blessed because she simply believed that God would do what He said He would do.

“Let it be.” Do you have this kind of trust in the goodness and greatness of God? Do we? And are we willing, both individually and as a congregation, to trust Him completely in all things? No matter how difficult those things might be? No matter how much we think we know what’s best for us? No matter how much we might believe that God has created us simply to enjoy a comfortable life with our family?

Our Creator has written on our hearts not only to enjoy eternity as a spectator in His majestic stadium, watching happily from the bleachers, but being brought onto the field, given a jersey, and adopted as a full member of His team, to live in His acceptance and embrace. We never become God, but we do become one with Him in His Son and our glad and joyful conformity to Jesus.

What might we do, what might we accomplish, how might we move God’s kingdom forward in ways far beyond anything we can imagine if we simply said, “Let it be, Lord. Let it be”?

George Mueller was a powerful man of faith who lived in the 19th century. He receives more than two million dollars to fund the orphanages he founded in England without ever advertising or even asking anyone for money. Every penny came as an answer to prayer.

Mueller would pray and God would tell him what to do; he’d pray some more and God would bring whatever provision was needed. Once Mueller was on a ship traveling from England to Quebec, when the ship ran into a heavy bank of fog. Mueller found the captain and told him that he needed to be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon. The captain said it was impossible.

Mueller, who knew the words of the angel Gabriel spoken to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God,” told the captain they needed to pray. The captain asked him if he knew how dense the fog was and Mueller replied, “No. My eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life.” He said, “If your ship cannot get me to Quebec by Saturday, then God will find some other way, because I have never broken an engagement in 57 years and God will not let me break this one.” He then got down on his knees and prayed a simple prayer.

Then he told the captain, “As you do not believe He will answer, and as I believe He has, there is no need for you to pray about it. I have known my Lord for 57 years and there has never been a single day when I failed to get an audience with the King. Open the door, captain, and you will find the fog has gone.”

The captain opened the door and discovered that, indeed, the fog had lifted. George Mueller kept his promised engagement in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.

This is trust. This is what is possible when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus instead of on our problems. This is what could begin to happen right here if we began to recognize that we are called here as a people not just to gather comfortably and talk about Jesus—but to go out into the world as part of His great team? To do whatever He has prepared for us? To be open to considering that maybe where we are isn’t where He wants us.

Mary understood that God owes her nothing. She owes God everything.

God owes me nothing. He owes you nothing. We owe Him everything.

Let us pray.

Updated – December 2018 Announcements

Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship with Holy Communion

Monday, December 24, 9:00 PM

 

WE WELCOME THE FOLLOWING NEW MEMBERS THIS SUNDAY, 23: Karissa Hendrick, Karen Sumner, Janet & Dan Richardson. Please take time to welcome them.

OUR SINCERE SYMPATHY to the family of Nat & Andrea Little. Nat’s father, John Little, went home to be with the Lord last Tuesday. Please keep the family in your prayers.

DOROTHY SEVERTSON has moved to Sunnyview Care Center in Ankeny. She would enjoy your visit.

ALL 2018 CONTRIBUTIONS must be turned in by noon on Monday, December 31, 2018.

ANNUAL REPORTS are due January 13. If you’re the chairman of a board or committee, please be busy preparing your report at soon as possible.

WANTED: MUSICIANS – We’re looking for people of all ages who are interested in learning to play the guitar. Guitar and lessons will be provided. Please talk to Pastor Kathy if you’re interested.

OUR DAILY BREAD devotional booklets for December-February are available on the table in the narthex.

THERE IS NO SUNDAY SCHOOL TODAY OR NEXT SUNDAY. Sunday School will resume on January 6.

JANUARY FELLOWSHIP DINNER will be held on Sunday, January 6. Free will offering will go toward the Tartu Academy Home of Hope.

PORTALS OF PRAYER for January-March 2019 are available on the table in the narthex.

DAYCARE ITEMS NEEDED: The daycare is looking for donations of a variety of items. There is a complete list in the December New Light and also posted on the bulletin board in the upper hallway.

Donations may be brought to the church and placed in the tub at the top of the steps outside the church office.

WORSHIP SERVICE DVD’S from the previous week are available on the table in the narthex for anyone who was unable to be here last week and would like to watch the service.

THURSDAY MORNING WOMEN’S BIBLE STUDY has begun a new study based on John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. All women in the congregation are invited to join us at 10:00 on Thursday morning.

SUNDAY MORNING PRAYER MINISTERS will gather in the Fellowship Room for a time of prayer following our worship service this morning. If you are presently involved in our prayer ministry, or if you would like to be, join us. Anyone in need of prayer is encouraged to come and receive.

“LOOSE CHANGE TO LOOSEN CHAINS: Our 7th grade confirmands are collecting loose change to benefit victims of human trafficking. All proceeds go toward the work of the International Justice Mission. They have set a goal of $3000.00. So far they have collected $1,768.83.

WINGS OF REFUGE CAPITAL CAMPAIGN continues; donations may be made payable to Bethany. Our goal is $4,000.00. To date, we have collected $2,865.00.

ALUMINUM CAN TABS continue to be collected. Tabs go to the Rochester, Minnesota, Ronald McDonald House, where they benefit the families of seriously ill children hospitalized at Mayo.