Have We Given Up on Jesus?

Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

KOH2RVA: Day 121

indian_schoolchildrenI met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Did you hear that?

One billion.

This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals, and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas” he will give every child in the school a free pen.

I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.” And then he told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. And then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do. He says he has been able to share “the true story of Christmas” with 600,000 children so far.

Only 9,400,000 to go.

Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth. His mission is keeping people out of hell. And that did to me what it always does: it made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”

I would appreciate your thoughts on that as we enter this new year, and the final two thirds of our year-long, every-member mission trip. I would love for us to go forward with this man’s energy and ambition.

But I don’t want us to go in the wrong direction.

KOH2RVA: Day 110

ChristmasPresents2In the 5:00 service on Christmas Eve I talked about the “season of giving” and questioned why we give what we give. Is it because we want to, or because we have to? I talked about the worst gift I ever gave (an ugly homemade hat for my brother Scott). I talked about how “generosity begets generosity.” I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And then I said this:

I wonder if generosity will beget generosity in this season. I wonder if God’s gift of himself will inspire us to give. And I’m not just talking about money, although that figures in. Money is a symbol of what we value. We pay $20 for something because we think it’s worth $20. How much is God’s love worth to us? What will we give in return for the gift of his son?

I love Vicky Nicholau’s answer. She told me that last year she was in Hanna Zhu’s Sunday school class, where they studied the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. It’s not, is it? It’s Jesus’ birthday. The more Vicky thought about that and the more she wondered what she could give Jesus at Christmas the answer became clear: she could give him herself.

Last summer she was baptized in the James River and this is what she said: that her baptism was a symbol of giving herself to Jesus. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me then that of all the people I see working to bring heaven to earth on our year-long, every-member mission trip, Vicky seems to be the one who is doing it most joyfully. She seems to be giving herself away like that tree—apples, limbs, and trunk. And you get the feeling that if Jesus would come and sit down on her stump when she’s through giving herself away, she would be happy.

What about you? Will generosity beget generosity? Will God’s gift of himself inspire you to give yourself away? And will you give because you want to, or because you have to? There’s a difference, and the one who receives your gift will surely be able to tell.

December 25 is a couple of days behind us at this point, but it’s still not too late to give your gift to God.

KOH2RVA: Day 109

StStephenIconForWebIt’s Day 109 of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to Richmond, but on the Christian calendar it’s the feast day of St. Stephen. You may remember the song:

Good King What’s-His-Face looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
And the chance of rain that day?
Slightly more than even.

I got email from Jerry Michael yesterday, who was initially a member of our “television congregation,” and then a leader in one of our first “Microchurches,” and who now comes to the early service every Sunday and then goes home to cook a big brunch for his family, encouraging them to settle in front of the TV for the 11:00 service on Channel 8.

He’s all in.

So I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’s been bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, for a while now, and not just this year. Look at what he had to say yesterday:

Jim,

I wish you a merry Christmas and thank you for the way you profess what is real in Jesus. I get it!

My son Travis and I did the KOH2RVA thing today (Christmas Eve) by giving a Christmas gift card to a man with a young child at the Dollar Store. The man didn’t seem to have enough money to give the child what he really wanted. Well…Travis and I decided to give him the card, ($100.00). So we did. We high tailed it out of the store right away. Later we saw the man and his son smiling and walking down the sidewalk. What a joy. This is the fifth year we’ve done this. Travis understands what it is to give.

Do you remember that sermon you preached about “Doo-Doo,” the poor little kid from the trailer park? I pray for kids like him, and I know where you’re coming from Jim. I’ve been there. You and I should give thanks and praise to our Lord God and Praise Jesus. But let’s not forget the ones Jesus loved like Judas.

Very Warmly,

Jerry

I’m not completely sure what Jerry means about “not forgetting the ones Jesus loved like Judas,” but I think he’s saying let’s not forget those people who are on the fringes of society, not even those people who are on the fringes of our society—the ones who have ignored us, neglected us, betrayed us, and let us down. This season of Christmas (which, according to the Christian calendar, goes on for a full twelve days) might be the perfect time to reach out to some of those people with the love of the One who gave us his only son, and this day—St. Stephen’s Day—might be the perfect time to say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

KOH2RVA: Day 101

hugYesterday—Day 100 of KOH2RVA—we had at least 100 guests at the Ralph Anderson Memorial Christmas Breakfast for the Homeless in the dining hall at First Baptist Church, and that’s not counting Santa Claus.

I remember Ralph.  I used to see him in Community Missions on Wednesday mornings, taking down the names of our homeless guests and helping them check their bags so they could get a shower.  He loved that job.  He loved those people.  Shortly before he died he established a small endowment that would produce enough income to put on one big breakfast a year and yesterday that’s what we had—one big breakfast.

I watched as our guests filed into the room past a uniformed police officer and took their places at the tables.  They seemed eager, excited, their eyes shining in a way I rarely see on those other, ordinary days.

When it was time for the blessing I took the microphone and said, “Before I pray, let me say a personal word of welcome.  I’m really glad that you’re here.  And I want you to know that these volunteers who have come to serve you breakfast this morning have come because they love you.  They don’t refer to you as ‘clients’: they call you ‘neighbors,’ and ‘family,’ and ‘friends.’”

And then I prayed, saying something like, “Lord Jesus, you didn’t have a house.  You said so yourself.  You said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  But if you did have a house I believe you would want to throw open the doors to these, your brothers and sisters.  And on a day like today I believe you would want to serve them breakfast.  And so, we’re going to do that for you, and we ask you to bless it, and them, and us, in your name.  Amen.”

And then the breakfast began, and it was wonderful.

I sat at a table and talked and laughed with the men who were there.  But eventually the talk came around to what happened in Connecticut last Friday, that terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The shock and disgust registered on their faces.  One of them said, “I can’t believe it!  I can’t believe anyone would want to hurt a child!”

It seemed ironic; I had just heard that a mother had decided not to bring her children to our weekday school that morning because “all those homeless people” were milling around outside the doors, waiting for breakfast.  She was nervous after what happened in Connecticut last week.  A lot of parents were.  And even though she is thankful we have a ministry to the homeless she just couldn’t bring herself to drop off her children while they were there.

I wish she could have seen the look on this man’s face as he said, “I can’t believe it!  I can’t believe anyone would want to hurt a child!”

Someday, when heaven comes to earth, that man and her children will be best friends.  They will get out of the car at school and come running across the parking lot, giggling, and calling his name.  And he will scoop them up in his arms with a big smile, and carry them to their classrooms like a guardian angel, looking back only long enough to reassure their mother as she waves and blows kisses.

Until that day comes, we’ve got work to do.

KOH2RVA: Day 96

2012-12-11 11.46.55On Tuesday of this week the staff of First Baptist Church got together to stuff stockings for kids who might not otherwise have any. It’s part of a program Steve Blanchard calls “Operation J.O.Y.” Steve explains it like this:

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Every day, thousands in the Richmond area find themselves without basic necessities. However, during the Christmas season that need seems to magnify. With the emphasis on giving and having, many people’s needs become more poignant. We want to offer you some practical ways to help those less fortunate. As you are blessed, bless others and may everyone, rich and poor, have a very Merry Christmas.

Donate:

Buy a new gift for a child or teenager and bring it to Steve Blanchard’s office or place it around the shopping carts in the main hallway (you may also wish to give cash or gift cards to Target or Wal-Mart and someone else will do the shopping).

a. For a donation of $50.00, you can sponsor a child in residence at the Rosey Grier Youth Pavilion.

b. For a donation of $25.00, you can provide a welcoming bag of supplies for a homeless individual. (Please direct all donations to Steve Blanchard and earmark them “Operation J.O.Y.” Checks made payable to First Baptist Church)

c. You can also donate the following items: Men’s underwear (any size), Men’s white crew socks, Children’s shoe’s (any size), Men’s boots (any size), Backpacks, $5.00 Gift Cards to Kroger, McDonalds, Subway, CVS, or Hardees, or $20.00 Gift Cards to Wal-Mart.

Place all donations (except gift cards) either in carts located in main hallway or in Steve Blanchard’s office. Gift cards can be put in Steve’s staff mailbox.

Attend one of the Christmas parties we are giving in honor of those we are privileged to serve. During these parties, we will provide not only good fellowship but also a Christmas store, where parents may shop with dignity. We need help serving, childcare, transportation, shopping assistance, and hospitality.

a. Fresh Start for Single Moms. Sunday, December 9 at 4:30pm

b. Anderson Memorial Breakfast for the Homeless. Monday, December 17 at 9:30am

c. Mixteca Christmas Party. Saturday, December 22 at 1:00pm

Donate to local charities and FBC partners like Richmond Friends of the Homeless, Peter Paul Development Center, Area Congregations Together in Service (ACTS), or International Justice Mission. Make checks payable directly to your chosen organization and either mail directly or give to Steve Blanchard.

For more information, contact Steve at blanchard@fbcrichmond.org.

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Steve told us on Tuesday that First Baptist is helping 600 families through this program this year. What a wonderful way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia!

After stuffing stockings, we stuffed ourselves with some Famous Dave’s BBQ, and then got a little silly, as the video below demonstrates (just so you’ll know, the challenge was to blow up eight balloons, stuff them into the legs of a pair of pantyhose, put it on someone’s head, and sing “Jingle Bells.” No alcohol was involved. Still not sure which team actually won).

Ah, the staff of First Baptist Church. There’s nothing they won’t do to bring a little Christmas joy to others.

KOH2RVA: Day 93

pageantLast night’s Youth Christmas Pageant was wonderful.

It was written by our own Ann Carter, who worked with the youth to develop a script that was just right for Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

The play was set in Eunice’s Piano Café, and at one point two girls showed up wearing “wise men” costumes. They explained that they were on the way to the youth pageant at their church, but all the boys wanted to be shepherds, leaving the girls to play the part of the wise men. Later one of the café patrons made a sarcastic remark about “those wise girls from the heaven on earth church.”

I laughed out loud.

But the play wasn’t only funny: it was a creative and innovative way of telling an almost too-familiar story. And when the wise men made their regal procession at the end of the pageant to bow before the baby Jesus, I probably wasn’t the only one with a lump in my throat. In my closing prayer I said, “Twenty years ago these children weren’t even born, but they’ve grown up in this church, they’ve heard this story over and over again, and now here they are, telling it to us.”

As I said, it was wonderful.

But just before the play began I heard something that may have been even more wonderful. Beth Holthaus asked me if I knew Ginny Sanders. Well, of course I do. Everybody knows Ginny. She directed the Youth Christmas Pageant for decades and earned a reputation as “the world’s oldest living teenager.” But these days Ginny is in health care at Lakewood Manor. She can’t direct the youth pageant any more. She isn’t even able to come.

And so the pageant came to her.

Yesterday, during the Sunday school hour, the senior youth put on their pageant costumes and went out to Lakewood Manor. I wish I could have been there to see Ginny’s face when they walked into her room. I understand pictures were taken, and as soon as I get one I’ll post it below. But for now it’s enough to imagine that moment, and to thank God for the youth from “that heaven on earth church,” who, on Sunday morning, in a lonely room at Lakewood Manor, did just that—

They brought heaven to earth.

Ginny