Friday, December 17, 2010

Light Appears

I’m an avid hunter and each fall I spend time preying on the elusive Michigan whitetail. In my younger days, I judged the success of my hunt by the venison I put in my freezer. But more recently, I’m realizing that hunting gives me much more than venison. It gives me a place to be alone, silent, and still. It gives me a greater appreciation for God’s creation and the change of seasons I get to witness with all my senses. So, when that big buck strolls by, it’s like ice cream on a wonderful piece of cake. I get to enjoy both.

But, there’s an aspect of hunting I really don’t like. It’s something no good hunter can avoid. It’s darkness. It’s common knowledge among hunters that deer feed and move, generally, just after dawn and just before dusk. So, to increase your chances of intersecting a deer traveling to or from a feeding area in the morning, you need to be in your stand before dawn. And the guys I hunt with… well, they like to be in their stands an hour before light. Uggh! That means a 5 a.m. wake up call on a Saturday morning. That means a dark, sleepy drive from my house to my friend’s hunting ground. That means a dark walk to the stand and a dark climb up the tree, all while fumbling with a small flashlight. That means a long hour of sitting in a dark tree during the coldest time of the day. I hate that part of hunting. Time drags. It’s the longest hour of the day.

So, why do I go through something I hate so much? Why endure the discomfort and inconvenience on a Saturday morning when I could be enjoying a deep sleep in a warm bed? It’s because I know the light will gradually come. The sun will rise and the things I love so much about hunting will be fully experienced. It’s amazing what light does. It simply lets me see. Instead of straining to see 10 feet in front of me, I can see the entire forest in full color. Light also awakens the forest. Birds begin to appear and sing and other animals begin their daily pursuit of food. And… the hunt begins.

This past year, I worked through a book called The Story with a couple small groups I lead. Using mostly Scripture it tells, in chronological order, the story of God in about 400 pages. A few weeks ago, my men’s group finished the Old Testament portion of the book and as we reviewed the big picture of the OT, many of us commented on how dark that time period seemed to be. God created humans to live in harmony and relationship with him but, time and time again, they chose sin and rebellion instead of an obedient, blessed relationship with God. The OT seems to be filled with cold, dark hours where God’s people struggled to see clearly. Yes, there were torch bearers like Abraham, Moses, David, and Daniel who carried light in darkness; yet as we read the OT we all longed for Light to appear. Mankind needed someone to wake up the world and bring life to a dead and dark world.

Then the Light appeared! Read John’s words, the words that open his Gospel account of the life of Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1.1-4

Light and Life came just as predicted. Isaiah, a prophet who lived in a dark period of time almost 700 years before Jesus, had a vision of the coming Light. In a time where the nation of Israel was in peril because of their rebellion against God, Isaiah envisioned the Light coming over the horizon.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned... For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9.2,6

Christmas is upon us. It’s time to celebrate the Wonderful, Mighty, Everlasting Light! Our dark hours have hope!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Call Me "Grinch"

Before my small group pastor days, I worked for a little company called United Parcel Service. I was a delivery driver with the brown truck and the brown uniform. Now, UPS is a wonderful company and I’m very grateful for the 16 years I had employment there. But, there was a certain time of year that I dreaded. It was Christmas. From Thanksgiving until the day before Christmas, UPS was a tough place to work because certain difficult elements collided all at once, making a perfect storm of misery for me. First, the work load jumped dramatically because of holiday shopping. Second, the time changed, making daylight hours shorter. And third, snow began to fall. Lots of packages and long, cold, snowy, dark days combined for enormous pressure. My cynicism grew every December and to be totally honest, I grew to hate Christmas.

On one of those cold, dark evenings, my cynicism busted open. It had been a long day. It had snowed all day and I was way behind. I knew I was going to be working deep into the evening. The streets were dark and house numbers were hard to read. My feet were cold and wet and my soul was dark. I approached a house with a package in hand. I placed it on the dry porch, rang the door bell and began to return to my truck, all the while smelling someone’s supper cooking. All I could think about was why I wasn’t home enjoying a warm dinner with my wife and kids. Stepping off the porch, a bright object caught the corner of my eye. It a Santa Claus lawn ornament—you know, the Santa with a big grin, waving at all the passersby. It was as if Santa were laughing at me that night and I realized at that moment—that stupid Santa represented my misery. Then, in a weak moment, something in me caused me to act on my distain. I cuffed Santa. Yeah, I hit him. The back of my hand smacked Santa so hard that he toppled face first into the snow. For a half second, I felt bad and almost went to pick him up… but I didn’t. I left his stupid grin, face down in the cold snow.

For years, I wrestled with the whole concept of Christmas. What’s the point? Why celebrate the birth of Jesus? It just gets twisted and out of hand anyway. And, other than Easter, we don’t celebrate other things that Jesus did. We don’t have Transfiguration parties. We don’t rejoice on the day that Jesus was baptized. We don’t have Miracle Mondays. Why Christmas? Why all the big commotion for his birth?

Oh, I knew all the right answers, but each year I had to find a time to slow myself down and let the real significance of Christmas resonate deeply in my soul. If I didn’t, I’d get caught up in the trappings and cynicism of the season. For many years, a chapter from Max Lucado’s book, God Came Near helped me. Each time I read it, I was reminded of the greatest thing that God ever did for human beings—he became man. God incarnate. God in human skin. God dwelling with us, and dying for us. As I type some words from this chapter, tears still flow from my eyes as I reflect on how God came near for me. I hope they encourage you as well.

It all happened in a moment, a most remarkable moment. As moments go, that one appeared no different than any other... It was one of the countless moments that have marked time since eternity became measurable.

But in reality, that particular moment was like none other. For through that segment of time a spectacular thing occurred. God became a man. While the creatures of earth walked unaware, Divinity arrived. Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious one in a human womb.

The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl.

God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created… God had come near.

It all happened in a moment. In one moment…a most remarkable moment. The Word became flesh.

There will be another. The world will see another instantaneous transformation. You see, in becoming man, God made it possible for man to see God. When Jesus went home he left the back door open. As a result, “we will all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”

The first moment of transformation went unnoticed by the world. But you can bet your sweet September that the second one won’t. The next time you use the phrase “just a moment,” …remember that’s all the time it will take to change this world.

Excerpts from “Just a Moment” by Max Lucado, 1987 (Multnomah Press) To read the entire chapter online, go to .

This week’s author: Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

Friday, December 3, 2010

Admirer or Follower

Did you see the Olympics this summer? Michael Phelps was amazing, wasn’t he? Eight gold medals. Question—How many would say you are an admirer of Michael Phelps? (hands raise) Me too. Here’s the deal. Somewhere out there, there’s a kid that when he watched Michael Phelps his heart started pounding, his mind started racing. He said to himself, “What Michael Phelps did, I could do. The way he swam, I could swim. Where he stood on the podium, I could stand.”

Right now, that kid is going to the pool every day. He’s reading articles. He’s watching videos. He’s looking for a coach. He actually wants to become like Michael Phelps. He wants to do want Michael Phelps did. He’s not just an admirer, he’s a follower. Now, I applaud what Michael Phelps did but it will not change my life. I have not been in a pool since the Olympics. I’m an admirer, not a follower. There’s a big difference. An admirer is impressed. A follower is devoted. An admirer applauds. A follower surrenders. An admirer approves. A follower obeys. (John Ortberg, 2008)

I’ve noticed that a new word has popped up that has replaced the word “Christian.” It’s “Jesus-follower.” I like that word. It says a lot about the intentions of someone’s faith in Jesus. What they are saying is that they desire to follow Jesus. That’s great. What’s interesting is that I don’t think I ever heard anyone describe themselves as a Jesus-admirer. But, I wonder if that’s a better description for some people who claim to be a follower of Jesus.

When Jesus walked the earth, three types of people surrounded him: detractors, admirers, and followers. The detractors were typified by the Pharisees. They rejected Jesus’ claims that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. Others became followers. The Twelve gave up everything to follow him. Peter and Andrew dropped their fishing careers to follow Jesus. Levi left his tax collecting business to become a follower. They were devoted, they surrendered, and they obeyed. However, there’s was a middle group that I think Ortberg would call “admirers.” They came to hear his talks, and gathered to see if he would heal the sick. They surrounded Jesus to see if he’d become a military messiah to free them from Roman oppression. But when Jesus asked them to be like him and do what he taught, many turned back and returned home. They seemed impressed, they even applauded Jesus, and some even approved; but admiring Jesus didn’t really change their life.

I wonder… what is the biggest category of people that fills our churches today? As I read Ephesians, I’m sure Paul saw the same issues in the churches he ministered to. I think he was passionate about seeing people move from being a religious admirer to a passionate follower. As we close our time in Ephesians, let’s look at a few phrases from Ephesians 4 and 5 that tell us what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus.

• I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
• …put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
• …speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
• Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.
• (You) must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
• (Speak) only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
• Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

So, what does your life say about you? Are you an admirer or a follower? Read the entire book of Ephesians again this week and see it through the lens of being a follower of God.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor