Monday, December 27, 2010

"Re-Creation" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 208
By Rev. Greg Smith

In 2005 I wrote an article for this newspaper, entitled “New Year Traditions.”  I quoted Jeremiah 29:11, which says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  

New Year’s Day is a day of hope for the future.  It’s a day of re-creation.  People re-create themselves by making resolutions to do something different in the new year than they did in the previous year.  They vow to quit smoking or drinking, or to lose weight or to spend more time with friends and family.  We often break these resolutions quickly, because we don’t allow ourselves to become totally transformed.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[i]   He also says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”[ii]  We can change our external behaviors all we want, but if there’s not a corresponding internal change, it will never last.  We’ll say, “Yep, just like last year, my New Year’s resolutions only lasted a few days.”  We’ve got to allow God to change us on the inside.

YOu can only be truly made new if you’re new in Christ.  When a person receives Jesus as their Savior and Lord, they find themselves transformed into something better than they once were.  The mind begins to be renewed.  The Christian’s thoughts and plans become aligned with God’s thoughts and plans.  If you want total transformation rather than just another New Year’s resolution, then ask Jesus to come into your heart and mind.  Ask Him to forgive your past sins and re-create you according to His perfect will.

As I look toward 2011, I’m determined not to re-create myself, but to allow God to re-create me.  I plan to engage in a little recreation.  Holy recreation isn’t just horsing around—it’s taking time away from the world’s demands in order to re-connect with the God who created you.  Re-creation allows God to recharge your spiritual batteries so you can operate in His power when you come to life’s challenges.  Don’t take life so seriously that you neglect the re-creation that you so desperately need.  Go fishing.  Take a family vacation.  Have personal prayer retreat in the great outdoors.  Let Jesus re-create you in 2011, for He says, “Behold, I make all things new.”[iii]

[i] Romans 12:2
[ii] 2 Corinthians 5:17
[iii] Revelation 21:5

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Reindeer Games" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 207
“Reindeer Games”
By Rev. Greg Smith

Are you still trying to get your last-minute Christmas shopping finished?  Are you as much of a procrastinator as I am?  Some of us put off Christmas shopping because we hate shopping, or because the people on our list are hard to buy for.  I don't mind the shopping so much as I mind the lines. It's actually fun to find things to give people you love. But standing in line is the pits. So why not play some reindeer games while you wait?  Here's how to make shopping lines fun, if you're in a group. The more people in your group, the better.

Divide your group into as many lines as possible. See if you can get into similar positions (with the same number of people in front of you). Then it's a race to see whose cashier is fastest, and who gets to the cashier first. If you're buying a bunch of stuff, then each person can buy an item or two. But suppose the whole group is only buying one item. That makes it even more fun! In that case, when the "winner" who gets to the register first is greeted by the cashier, they wave their hands and call the entire group to leave their lines and gather at that register. Even if the "winner" didn't have the item to be purchased, they have it now, and can make the purchase. Want to make it even more interesting? Why not make it so the winner gets a nickel (or a quarter or a dollar or a stick of gum) from each of the losers? (I'm not advocating gambling--just a little incentive.)

Or--another way to play--instead of recalling the group to return to the winner, let everybody stay in line until they get their cashier. The person who actually has the item or items for purchase does the purchasing, but the others wait as if they have a transaction to make. When the cashier greets them, they say, "I didn't want to buy anything--I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas." Now won't that make the cashier's day?

You don't have to let Christmas shopping stress you out. Have fun with it. Use your shopping experience to brighten up someone else's day. You've gotta spend time line anyway--why not have fun with it?  Psalm 32:11 (NIV) says, “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!”  This Christmas, don’t just make merry with your family and friends at home—take the fun of Christmas into the most stressful place for last-minute shoppers—the shopping mall.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Christmas Presence" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 206
“Christmas Presence”
By Rev. Greg Smith

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11 NIV).”

            What Christmas presents do you plan to give this year?  Probably your kids or grandkids have already given you long lists, and you’ve checked them twice—not just to see who’s been naughty and nice, but to see how much you can afford. 

            The American Research Group, Inc. reports that the amount of money American shoppers plan to spend on Christmas gifts has gone up by 58% since last year, from an average of $417 to $658.  This shows greater confidence in the recovery of our economy over last year.  Compare that to average Christmas spending of $1,004 in 2004, and you can see that our economy still has a long way to go.[i]  Maybe your Christmas spending isn’t as much as you’d like it to be, because times have been difficult for you lately.  More than once I’ve heard someone’s grandma say “Now, don’t expect as big a Christmas this year, because money is tight.”

            Which brings me to a pet peeve of mine—hearing people say, “I’m going to buy the kids their Christmas,” instead of “I’m going to buy the kids their Christmas presents.”  You can’t buy Christmas!  You can buy Christmas presents, but let’s get this right.  Getting it wrong indicates that all our priorities are out of whack.

            Christmas gift-giving has a long tradition that actually goes back to pre-Christian times, when the Romans would celebrate the winter solstice festival of Kalends with festivity and gift-giving.  When the Winter Solstice became the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, gift-giving recalled the presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to baby Jesus by the Magi.  During the fourth century, Bishop Nicholas of Myra dropped bags of gold down the chimney of a poor man whose three daughters were about to be sold into slavery.  The gold landed in the girls’ stockings that had been hung by the fire to dry, and the Christmas gift exchange was born!  Until the industrial revolution, gift-giving was mostly fruits, nuts, and homemade items, but all that changed with modern innovation and advertising.  

            This year, instead of getting bitten by the commercialism humbug, why not intentionally simplify your Christmas?  Gift-giving is fine—I’m not saying you should let your family go without.  But place your priority on the right thing—on Christmas Presence, instead of Christmas presents.  Let the presence of Christ overwhelm your celebration.  Instead of giving gifts and then sending the kids off to play with their toys all day (and ignoring you), be present with your family this Christmas.  Too many extended-family get-togethers involve three or four generations, with the grandparents and the parents spending their time visiting, while the parentally-ignored children go off to play together.  That way, grandparents never get to know their grandkids!  Instead, let everyone spend the day, and the season, together.  Let the presence of God fill you with joy.  Enjoy Jesus’ Christmas Presence, and remember that He is the greatest gift of the season!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Total Transformation" - Today's sermon

Ordinarily I don't post my sermons (exactly) on this site, but since there was a rumor of snow in the forecast, and since I wasn't preaching with PowerPoint today, I decided to write out my sermon longhand, just in case we cancelled church due to weather.  Fortunately, we had church and it wasn't an issue--but my dear readers benefit from my longhand this week.

Now, if only I can figure a way to shorten this long sermon down to a Spirit and Truth article...

December 12, 2010 – Advent 3
Title:  “Total Transformation”
Isaiah 35:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the HolyWay; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

            All of us are familiar with the Salvation Army collection kettles.  You can’t go to the shopping mall or Wal-Mart or anywhere else during this Christmas season without seeing the bell-ringers’ smiling faces and hearing them wish you a Merry Christmas.  Perhaps you slip a dollar or two into the kettle, and wish the bell-ringer a Merry Christmas in return.  Maybe you even say a prayer for those cold volunteers who have such a thankless job.  But do you know the history of the Salvation Army?  They are far more than a collection agency at Christmas time, and a thrift store downtown near UVA hospital. 

            “The Salvation Army began in 1865 when William Booth, a London minister, gave up the comfort of his pulpit and decided to take his message into the streets where it could reach the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute. 

“His original aim was to send converts to established churches of the day, but soon he realized that the poor did not feel comfortable or welcome in the pews of most of the churches and chapels of Victorian England.  Regular churchgoers were appalled when these shabbily dressed, unwashed people came to join them in worship. 

“Booth decided to found a church especially for them—the East London Christian Mission.  The mission grew slowly, but Booth’s faith in God remained undiminished.

“In May of 1878, Booth summoned his son, Bramwell, and his good friend George Railton to read a proof of the Christian Mission’s annual report.  At the top it read:  THE CHRISTIAN MISSION IS A VOLUNTEER ARMY.  Bramwell strongly objected to this wording.  He was not a volunteer: he was compelled to do God’s work.  So, in a flash of inspiration, Booth crossed out “Volunteer” and wrote “Salvation.”  The Salvation Army was born. 

“By the 1900s, the Army had spread around the world.  The Salvation Army soon had officers and soldiers in 36 countries, including the United States of America.  This well-organized yet flexible structure inspired a great many much-needed services:  women’s social work, the first food depot, the first day nursery and the first Salvation Army missionary hospital.  During World War II the Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for the armed forces, which led to the formation of the USO. 

“Today, the Salvation Army is stronger and more powerful than ever.  Now, in over 106 nations around the world, the Salvation Army continues to work where the need is greatest, guided by faith in God and love for all people.”

William Booth saw this kind of need in the poor and destitute of his day, and his message was one of salvation and restoration.  Isaiah’s ministry was much the same.  His people longed for a better day, when the Messiah would come and rescue them from their terrible situation.  God gave Isaiah a vision of that Messiah, and the total transformation his coming would produce.  In His first coming, Jesus would die to save the people from their sins, and in his second coming the Lord would totally transform the entire world. 

The message that Isaiah proclaimed for the people of his day was one of rebuilding of life and culture after the devastation brought on them by the Exile.  The message that Isaiah speaks into our lives today is one of total transformation –not just of life and culture in the civic sense, but the conversion of body, soul, and spirit of every living person who receives Jesus as Savior and Lord.  The life of the saved person is never the same after they’ve been totally transformed.  In this Advent season, as we look to the coming of Christmas, we also eagerly anticipate the arrival of Jesus in each of our hearts, making our hearts into His eternal home.

In Isaiah 35:1-2, the prophet predicts a day of rejuvenation and rejoicing.  “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Isaiah 35:6b-7 says, “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” 

God’s people today are desperate for this kind of rejuvenation.  The imagery Isaiah uses is that of refreshing water flowing into a desert.  Psalm 63:1 says, “O God, you are my God! I long for you!  My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”  Perhaps you’ve felt that way, dry and used up on the inside.  God desires to put his Living Water back into you, and give you His rejuvenation.

He also wants to give you His reassurance.  In verses 3-4, Isaiah says, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’”

I have seen people with weak hands and feeble knees go through physical therapy, perhaps after a surgery or some injury.  Their hearts are fearful as they’re beginning their training, because they’re uncertain about the pain of their therapy, and because they’re unsure about whether the therapy will work or not, whether they will ever regain that which was lost.  Our Lord says, “Here is your God.”  He says, “I am here.  I want to reassure you that I will save you.”  Vengeance and recompense remind us that God is angry with the sin that got us into our mess, but His love reassures us that He will be there to get us through it.

In verses 5-6a, Isaiah predicts the healing powers of the Messiah.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus restoring health to the broken, even life to the dead.  As the song says, “The blind will see.  The deaf will hear.  The dead will live again.  The lame will leap.  The dumb will speak The praises of The Lamb..”  (“Mary Did You Know, by Clay Aiken)  Acts 10:38 says, “God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

Jesus can do the same for you.  He is still a God of healing today.  We don’t worship a Lord who USED TO heal.  We follow a Master who still heals today—body, soul, and spirit.  Are you in need of physical restoration?  Trust Him for your healing.  Like the woman who reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (Mt 9:20), reach out and touch the only one who can truly restore you.  Doctors can work on your body, but only Jesus can heal.

In verses 8-9, Isaiah talks about the Redeemer’s Road.  “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.”  “No unclean” means no sinful people will travel there, because the Messiah totally transforms us, making us holy.  “No lion” or “ravenous beast” refers to the Devil, who seeks to kill, steal, and destroy.  He won’t be there.  The Redeemer’s Road is a place of safety and joy.

Jesus talks a lot about the Redeemer’s Road—the way of salvation.  In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the Way,” or “I am the Road.”  In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  It’s not always an easy path to travel, but Jesus invites you to walk on his Redeemer’s Road.  It’s the only way to salvation and blessing from the Lord.

For those who follow the Redeemer’s Road, God promises that the ransomed will return, rejoicing!  Verse 10  says, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.   This is the kind of life that God wants you to have—not one where you feel defeated all the time, but one where the joy of the Lord is your strength!  Just as Isaiah prophesied the return of God’s exiled people to the Promised Land, so God’s prodigal children can return to Him, rejoicing in His goodness and grace.  Won’t you return, rejoicing in the ransom He has paid for you by the shedding of His precious blood?

Isaiah prophesied to the people of his day that one day the Messiah would come and set everything right.  When the Savior comes, Isaiah said, there would be total transformation.  They would rejoice in their rejuvenation.  They would experience the Lord’s reassurance and restoration.  They would walk on the Redeemer’s Road, and they would return, rejoicing in the ransom He had paid for them.
When God transforms us, we are totally transformed.  One unknown author writes:  “Once there was a brier growing in a ditch and there came along a gardener with his spade. As he dug around it and lifted it up the brier said to itself, "What is he doing? Doesn't he know I am a worthless brier?" But the gardener took it into his garden and planted it amid his flowers, while the brier said, "What a mistake he has made planting me among these beautiful roses." Then the gardener came once more and made a slit in the brier with his sharp knife. He grafted it with a rose and when summer came lovely roses were blooming on that old brier. Then the gardener said, "Your beauty is not due to what came out but to what I put in." 

            My prayer for you today is that you would know God’s total transformation.  I pray that God will take you and make you the thing of beauty that He wants you to be.  I pray that He will take you from your ruin to the radiance of His restoration. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Five-Finger Prayer

It's unusual that someone sends me an internet forward that I actually read.  I have too many legitimate emails to read, to spend a lot of time going through forwards.  You know the kind I mean--the kind of inspirational messages that can be sappy and can sometimes guilt you about how many people you need to forward this to...or how you'll have bad luck if you break the chain.

Well, this is an email forward that I received and actually opened and read.  I was surprised--it was so good that I decided to share it with you in its entirety.  Since I've blogged so much about prayer, I figured this would fit in well on Love The Word.  So I don't claim any of this as my own.  Its author is anonymous.

Five Finger Prayer 

This is so neat. I have never heard this before. This is beautiful - and it is surely worth making the 5 finger prayer a part of our lives.

Your thumb is nearest you. So begin your prayers by praying for those closest to you. They are the easiest to remember. To pray for our loved ones is, as C. S. Lewis once said, a 'sweet duty.'

2. The
next finger is the pointing finger. Pray for those who teach, instruct and heal. This includes teachers, doctors, and ministers. They need support and wisdom in pointing others in the right direction. Keep them in your prayers.

3. The
next finger is the tallest finger. It reminds us of our leaders. Pray for the president, leaders in business and industry, and administrators. These people shape our nation and guide public opinion. They need God's guidance.

4. The
fourth finger is our ring finger. Surprising to many is the fact that this is our weakest finger, as any piano teacher will testify. It should remind us to pray for those who are weak, in trouble or in pain. They need your prayers day and night. You cannot pray too much for them.

5. And lastly comes our
little finger - the smallest finger of all which is where we should place ourselves in relation to God and others. As the Bible says, 'The least shall be the greatest among you.' Your pinkie should remind you to pray for yourself. By the time you have prayed for the other four groups, your own needs will be put into proper perspective and you will be able to pray for yourself more effectively.

If you decide to send this to a friend, you might brighten someone's day! 

Don't tell God how big your storm is, tell the storm how big your God is!!!!!

Monday, December 6, 2010

"That Stubborn Stump" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 205
“That Stubborn Stump”
By Rev. Greg Smith

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—
      yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
 And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
      the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the Spirit of counsel and might,
      the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
 (Isaiah 11:1-2 NLT)

            Not long ago, a friend was telling me about his commitment to keep a promise, even though keeping his commitment might be inconvenient and even costly.  Psalm 15:4 says that a person of integrity, worthy of dwelling in God’s presence, keeps his oath even when it hurts.”  Today, though, it seems that promises have lost their meaning.  We fulfill our promises only when it’s expedient to do so.  Our word has lost its meaning.
            You can rest assured that even though people break their promises, God is always faithful to His word.  God made promises to Noah and his family (Gen 9:1-17), to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12, 15, 17), to Moses & Israel (Ex 20; Dt 11), and to King David.  In 2 Sam 7:11-16, God told David that his royal line would endure for all eternity.  That must have made David feel pretty confident!  Yet because of the unfaithfulness of David’s descendants, the kingdom was divided by civil war and finally conquered by outside enemies.  The temple was destroyed and the throne thrown down.  It must have seemed like God was breaking His promise.
Has anyone ever broken a promise to you?  Perhaps you’ve been a victim of broken promises so often that you have a hard time trusting people anymore.  Businesses break their promises.  Politicians break their promises.  Spouses beak their promises.  Friends break their promises.  In the wake of so many broken promises, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Hebrews 6:18 (NIV) says, “It is impossible for God to lie.”  Joshua 23:14 (NIV) says, “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”  You can count on God keeping His word.
Isaiah prophesied that even though David’s line had been seemingly broken, though David’s family was like a cut-off stump, a tender shoot would rise from that stump and bring life once more.  The Messiah would be a descendant of David, and He would sit on David’s throne forever.  Both Matthew and Luke show us not one but two different ways (both patrilineal and matrilineal genealogies are given) that Jesus the Messiah is a descendant of David.  He was proclaimed King at the Triumphal Entry, and now sits on the throne at the right hand of God.  The Lord keeps His promises.
Where are the stumps in your life?  Where are the places where you’ve been cut down, where it seems like God’s promises to you have been broken?  Where have you suffered hurt?  As God restored the line of David, so He can bring a tender shoot from the stumps in your life.  You can trust God to keep His promises, because our God is “Faithful and True (Rev 19:11).”