As we come back to this same text again this week I want to encourage you to do something with this text during Advent. Read it once a day. Read it yourself, read it during family devotions or at the dinner table. Read it each day. And if you really want it to sink in, try memorizing it. Have you ever been on a really big roller coaster like the ones at Six Flags? Back in my college days I rode one of the highest wooden roller coasters at Six Flags in Gurnee, Illinois. You know how it works, they start out by taking you up as high as they can and then drop you as far and as fast as they can. The really brave/foolish people do it with no hands. Last week I tried to take you up as high as I could into the heavens, as high as our finite minds could fathom the Son of God. Jesus existing without time or limit, infinitely big and powerful, creating everything from the vast universe filled with trillions of galaxies and stars, quasars and blackholes, down to the trillions of living creatures that inhabit our planet, and then sustaining everything He created every second of everyday. When a text starts out that way, you expect it to continue that way. You expect it to continue with grand and otherworldly language, magnifying the splendor of Jesus as God enthroned above the heavens, ruling and reigning on high. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word created everything that is. But then there is a twist, an unexpected turn. This week we are going to plunge to the depths in a most precipitous fall to earth. I probably can’t create that sinking feeling in your stomach as the roller coaster drops over the hill, but I hope to create profound sense of what Jesus did for us.
I have given our Advent series this year the title: The Incarnation: A Riches to Rags Story. There are a lot of rags to riches stories in the world. Some of you can even tell a story like that. Growing up in the Great Depression with little or nothing, learning how to survive without necessities. And now you are blessed and have all you need and much more. And there are a lot riches to rags stories in the world. People who started out with a lot or maybe had great successes and then lost it. We hear again and again of people winning the lottery and a few years later being worse off than ever. The same story can be told too many times in the world of Hollywood stars and pro sports, athletes making millions and a few years after retirement having nothing left. The incarnation is a story of a Great Condescension, a riches to rags story.
I want to reflect with you on how we might prepare our hearts and homes for the holidays in a way that doesn’t quench the Spirit. I have taken as our text I Thessalonians 5:16-19. Our priority as Christians and our priority as a church is to glorify God with all the joy we can throw into it. And that includes how we prepare for and celebrate the holidays ahead of us. Our text suggests three ways to do that, and behind each of those ways are three underlying reasons. Let’s explore these together through the following outline. Rejoice always because of the grace of God. Pray without ceasing because of the presence of God. Give thanks in all circumstances because of the providence of God.
You have heard often there are two kinds of people in the world. There are a million ways we can be divided into two camps. Huskies and Cougars. Ford and Chevy. Red States and Blue States. Coke and Pepsi. iPhone and Android. Those who eat the crust and those who don’t. Toilet paper over front or down the back. Morning people and those who want to shot morning people. Our text sets side by side a great contrast between Stephen and the Sanhedrin, a difference created by the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, by one filled with the Spirit and those resisting the Holy Spirit. We see those that look around and one who looks up. Those filled with rage and one filled with peace. Those who show no mercy and the one who prays for mercy. Those ready to kill and one ready to die. Those who hate and one who loves. Those who are acting according to the flesh and one who sees and says and does things the flesh never could.
Did you notice there was no time of confession in our Thanksgiving Day service? Does that mean we get a pass on Thanksgiving? Sort of like when you can ride the WTA buses free on fair week. Sort of like getting free shipping on Black Friday. There is a time for looking at our sin, at what we have done. There is a time for confessing and repenting. There is a time for taking honest inventory of our souls. But there is also a time to get our eyes off of ourselves and lift them up to God. There is a time to look at what God has done and express the gratitude of our souls. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance. There is a time for fasting and a time for feasting.
Telling time is important to us Americans since we are so time conscious. In other cultures time and dates and deadlines are not nearly as important and some cultures barely have clocks. I preached at an Apache Indian church in Oklahoma that didn’t start until about 20 minutes after the stated hour and even then we started before the pianist arrived. But there is more to telling time than what a clock or watch tells us. There is knowing the times. “The Doomsday Clock is a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board, the clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war” (Wikepedia). It is set once a year at the University of Chicago by a group of scientist. Right now it is set at two minutes to midnight, two minutes to an apocalypse. They hope this clock will somehow wake people up to the seriousness of the nuclear crisis and that we will do whatever we can to turn the clock back.
Last week we heard about the powerful ministry of Stephen, one of the seven men set apart as a deacon. Some of the Jews charged him with speaking blasphemously against Moses and God. Acts 6:13-14 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” Stephen has been charged with two very serious charges of blasphemy, blasphemy the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew.
When John says do not love the world we have to understand what he means and doesn’t mean by world. After all, the Bible says God so loved the world, so shouldn’t we love the world? What is the world John is talking about? The word world has not one meaning but three meanings in the Bible.
How many of you have been impacted or influenced or greatly helped by a person who was in your life for a very short time? Someone who in the span of a few months or weeks or maybe even hours left a positive lasting mark? Who knows maybe you have been touched by an angel unawares? Some brief encounters can be as profound and life changing as a lifelong friendship. This reminds us not to take for granted how God might use us in some stranger’s life, how a word or action could make a lasting impression. Being salt and light, bringing a cup of cold water, lifting a broken spirit, doesn’t have to take a long time. Don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit of God can do through you if you are open and available and paying attention to what He is doing around you. Stephen comes on the stage of Biblical history in Acts 6 and by the end of chapter seven he is dead and gone, but not forgotten. He has left a powerful example in his brief appearance. It is obvious Luke wants us to know him because he tells us a lot about him and he included his speech which is the longest speech in Acts.