What’s Your Favorite Christmas Gift?

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When I was 8 years old, my parents got my brother and me the original Nintendo gaming system.  Our friends and a few family members already had it, and we had been asking for it for some time.  The excitement, wonder, and eagerness rushes back after 29 years when I think on ripping the paper off of that present.  I’m not sure we went to bed that night trading turns pointing that silly gun at the TV screen during Duck Hunt or bouncing with Mario on all those goombas (think moving mushrooms) and koopa troopas (turtles).  As childhood Christmas’s go, that Nintendo system tops the list of favorite Christmas gifts.

It may sound cheesy or trite, but it’s nevertheless true: we get to give gifts at Christmas because God gave the greatest gift of all to the world.  While I believe it’s important to guard against all the hoopla and distractions the Christmas season may bring, I believe it’s just as important that we see the underlying foundation of all the hoopla is ultimately Jesus. The tiny baby wrapped up in whatever towels (or rags) that Mary and Joseph could muster became the most beautifully wrapped present of all.  In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God himself enclosed his very essence, power, and holiness in flesh and bone.  That gift would be broken open three decades later on the cross so that humanity could receive all he had to offer. Following his death, that gift would be wrapped up again, this time in burial clothes.  He would be placed into another container, the tomb.  Only, those clothes and that tomb couldn’t hold him.  This Jesus, wrapped neatly and set carefully in that crafted cave in death would burst out from these weak trappings.  In the resurrection, the greatest gift unwrapped himself! But God didn’t stop giving there.  Only a few short weeks later, Jesus would go back to God the Father and send his helper, the Holy Spirit, as his ever-present present to live in us and be with us.

In Jesus’ incarnation, God gave us the gift of himself to become the perfect example of humanity.  In Jesus’ death, God gave us the gift of forgiveness for our sinfulness by placing the punishment for the sins of the world on Jesus on the cross.  In Jesus’ resurrection, by defeating death and rising to new life, God gave us the gift of eternal life for those who would receive him and believe on him.  In sending the Holy Spirit, God gave us the gift of his continual presence living out his salvation through us each and every day.

And he keeps giving gifts!  When Christians give to church plants, international missions, or the needy, they become the very hands of God giving his goodness out into the world. When Christians serve in their churches or communities, they give the gift of kindness to those in need.  Most importantly, when Christians go on mission, they take the ultimate gift of Christmas, the redemption of the world, to those who have yet to receive Jesus.  In each of these, and so many more, God gives his goodness through them.  Every one of these gifts sits like a beautifully wrapped and expertly bowed present awaiting an eager, bright-eyed boy or girl to rip it open.

This Christmas, you’ll probably enjoy taking the time to remember your favorite gift you’ve been given along the way.  Then, remind yourself that the true and better Santa, God himself, has given you Jesus.  That gaming system years ago sure was fun, but against the backdrop of Jesus, it’s hardly anything. He’s become my favorite gift by far. The greatest gift of all! And he’s a gift God’s perfectly fine with us regifting.

Is Your Nativity Flawed?

As a reminder to our family and guests that Jesus’ birth claims center stage at Christmas, my wife loves to display nativity scenes. Last year, she purchased a new one. My son, 7 years old at the time, made a keen observation about it. Take a moment and look closely. Do you see what’s wrong with it?

Now of course, I’m sure a few of you will notice that the Wise Men are there at Jesus’ birth. They likely didn’t arrive to worship Jesus until he was two or three years old. Their presence in many nativities squeezes Matthew’s and Luke’s account of Jesus birth into one image. While I disagree with the creative license, I can understand it. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Look closely. Do you see it yet?

Jesus isn’t lighted!

While I’m sure the nativity scene was designed that way (creative license again), the absence of light from the Light of the World misses so much theologically. When my son first saw it, that’s the first thing he said, “Of all the characters, Jesus needs a light!”

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

At the signal of a star light over 2,000 years ago a baby came into this world to bring light—to be Light! At the announcement by the angels, a shimmering and foreshadowing light knocked back shepherds preparing the way for the greater Light born that day. On a mountain three decades later, Peter, James, and John would witness the unhindered glory of the Light on the Mount of Transfiguration. Not long after, the Light would appear momentarily to have been snuffed out in the crushing darkness on another mount—this one called Calvary, the place of the skull. But only three days following the Light would arise with the Sunday morning glory of resurrection, never to be faded, overshadowed, or darkened again.

But Jesus isn’t the only one to bear this light. That faulty nativity gets this part right. The other figures glow in worship to him and announcement to others. Jesus himself tells his followers,

14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

As his light-bearers, we’ve been entrusted to brighten the darkness around us with effervescent worship and illuminating witness. We are responsible to take his brilliance, wonder, and awe exposing it to dark places in the light he’s placed in us.

In truth, this is a far more important nativity to have right. A plaster decoration that sits on our hall table isn’t likely to fail in its witness. As a light-bearer, I am to take his gospel to those lost and floundering in darkness. As a light-bearer, I am to worship joyously so that others, in the light of my changed life, can see the Light of the world clearly. As a light-bearer, I am to keep all dimmers, faders, and dark corners from weakening the brilliance and brightness of the true Light born at Christmas.

Check your decorative nativities. Are they flawed? Does Jesus have center stage? Is he illuminated? Then check your nativity and be sure the Light has brightened you, and you are taking that light into the darkness.

I Love My Church Because We Are a Work in Progress

Recently, we noticed a leak below our church steeple coming down a column in our front entrance to our sanctuary. The head of our custodial team waited until it was raining and climbed up into the top of the steeple to find the source of the leak. Because of his diligence, effort, and digging, he was able to save us a significant amount of money chasing the water problem down.

As I’ve enjoyed sharing with you a number of the reasons I love my church, I have also looked under the surface to see “leaks” that need to be fixed. I have observed relationships that could be better. I have noticed deeper community and discipleship that could be improved. I have seen areas where we tend to be too internal, focusing on our needs (and wants) more than the gospel call to reach others. In my first post, I acknowledged that my church, Mud Creek, was far from perfect. In fact, if you attend Mud Creek you’ve seen some of our flaws firsthand. If you don’t attend Mud Creek, but chose to visit some time, I would suspect you would see one or a few of them.

But that’s also one of the reasons I love my church. In our imperfections, we scream out our ongoing neediness for the sin-altering power of the gospel. Jesus died for a broken, sinful, flawed church. He died for Mud Creek. But he also died to change those flaws, to fix those leaks, to repair those weak foundations, and to correct those errors.

Two verses in particular show us Jesus’ love for the flawed church:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Ephesians 5:25-27

In Philippians, Paul reminds the church that what Jesus began in us at salvation, he will continue in us until we are made perfect when he returns. In Ephesians, Paul explains how a husband’s love for his wife should parallel Jesus’ love for the church. He explains how Jesus’ ongoing love for his church sanctifies and cleanses us toward the day he completely purifies us. In other words, Jesus knows we aren’t perfect. He planned for it. What hope for us!

Do you know what’s so powerful in both of those passages? It’s Jesus’ job to fix his church’s flaws. I see some. Others will see more. Pastors, church leaders, elders, deacons, or teachers (depending on your church context) can help patch these “leaks.” But only one has the power to fix them. Permanently.

Flaws. Leaks. Weaknesses. Sins. Errors. Mistakes. Yes. My church has them. And yes. These all are part of the reason I love my church. Do you know why? Because each one—in myself and my church—reminds me why Jesus died. Jesus cares about each one more than I do. Jesus has to fix them. And thanks be to God, he is fixing them. One day, no flaw will remain in Jesus’ church. That’s the greatest reason I love my church. Mud Creek is his church, and he loves her more than I ever can!

*This is the final post in this Series. Thank you for taking the time to read this one. You can find the other Posts below. If you live near the Hendersonville, NC, area and find yourself looking for a church home, I would love for you to visit us, flaws and all, at Mud Creek. You can find more about us here.

Other Posts in This Series:

Post 1: Do You Know Why I Love My Church?

Post 2: I Love My Church’s Generosity

Post 3: I Love My Church’s Mission Focus

Post 4: I Love My Church’s Joy

Post 5: I Love the Servants at My Church

Post 6: I Love How My Church Cares for One Another

I Love How My Church Cares for One Another

A few years ago, in days before social media spreads word like wildfire, our church staff found out about a death in our church family a couple days after the funeral. I can still remember the anxious immediacy as we called that family to see what we could do following their loss. When we reached the family, I’ll never forget what they said, “Oh, we can’t thank the church enough for what they have done. We have been visited by so many, and others from our Sunday school class have provided food. We love how our church has loved us!”

That just about sums up how Mud Creek cares for Mud Creek. Our groups pour out visits, food, and prayers on those going through loss. Our deacons and pastors visit regularly, even daily, those facing ongoing medical trials. Still others check in on shut ins and those in nursing facilities.

Now, like any church, we will have our quibbles over space and times. Some will push their preferences while others will push back with theirs. Some like it hot and others like it cold. But when we get down to real life, our church loves its own. I deeply admire how we strive to honor Jesus’ instruction,

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:35

Jesus said the church’s love for the church will testify to the world of our identity with him. My church gets this right. And that’s one reason I love my church!

Other Posts in This Series:

Post 1: Do You Know Why I Love My Church?

Post 2: I Love My Church’s Generosity

Post 3: I Love My Church’s Mission Focus

Post 4: I Love My Church’s Joy

Post 5: I Love the Servants at My Church

I Love the Servants at My Church

In church circles, you may hear about the 80/20 rule—20% of the people do 80% of the work. In one church I grew up in, that rule was more than true. I remember one gentleman who did a little bit of everything, and many others sat comfortably (or lazily) to let him.

At Mud Creek, not everyone serves and many serve in multiple places. But, I’ve never been around a church where such a high percentage of our church family serves weekly. Hundreds and hundreds turn out to accomplish ministry opportunities regularly, sometimes daily.

One servant arrives at 7:00 am every Sunday to set up our parking and crosswalk signs. Another group greets at our entry doors every week. Some man our security team, while others study during the week to teach children, students, and adults. The musically gifted play instruments in our orchestra or sing in our choir or on our praise team. Some from the financial sector serve on our budget teams while leaders in our community assist our pastor on the church’s executive committee. Others fill backpacks with snacks for the weekend for children in our community who have less than most on the weekend. Carpenters and construction personnel give vacation time to build churches, renovate after disasters, or build handicap access ramps.

What impresses me so about these who serve is their genuine love for Christ and others. One greets, works in our AWANA children’s ministry, and will come on our deacon team. He’s done all this while fighting cancer. Another in her singleness and retirement flexibility cares constantly for our military overseas and local emergency services personnel. A third brings men from the mission or jail every single Sunday. These get it. Christ came to serve (Mark 10:45) and implant in his disciples the call to serve in his very own footsteps.

I get overwhelmed and overjoyed when I think about how many different faces I see serving our church family and community on a weekly basis. Day In day out, God’s people at Mud Creek obey the Scripture’s instruction,

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.

1 Peter 4:10

Servants are everywhere at Mud Creek. We get this right. And that’s one reason I love my church!

Other Posts in this Series:

Post 1: Do You Know Why I Love My Church?

Post 2: I Love My Church’s Generosity

Post 3: I Love My Church’s Mission Focus

Post 4: I Love My Church’s Joy

I Love My Church’s Joy

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Smiles. Genuine, Christ-shaped smiles everywhere. Retirees chatting happily in the sanctuary before service starts. Deacons cutting up with one another while they greet church members and visitors at the door. Children chasing each other through the pews and chairs and halls and stairs. Two lady friends giggling in the back of the sanctuary.  I love the joy that bubbles up and spills over every time I’m at church.

I notice many every Sunday and Wednesday many in our our congregation taking seriously Paul’s command,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

Philippians 4:4

Like any church, we have people who struggle with life’s difficulties. We have some who’s general disposition tends somber. We have others who can be negative from time to time. But as a whole, those who come on a week to week basis are seeking hope and joyously looking to the Answer. I make a beeline often to one church member who’s always got some quick witted jab or smart retort. I will often seek out another to playfully remind him how Alabama fans like himself tend to agitate many of the rest of us.  I shared in a sermon I preached a while back about my disdain for spiders. My church family has constantly reminded me of that. I’ve had more than a few “fear of spider” memes or “jump-out-at-you” spider videos shared to my Facebook page with an “Oh Robert…” note attached. It’s all in good fun.

The lighthearted playfulness reflects Pastor Greg’s jovial nature. In my time at Mud Creek, I have heard countless tales of practical jokes, pranks, and fun moments (and I’ve participated in one or two). Most are true, while others, well, let’s just say I am sure a healthy helping of exaggeration has been dolloped on top.  But here’s one important piece of advice for any of you wanting to get in on the joking action—snakes aren’t a laughing matter with Pastor Greg (to him at least).

Shouldn’t we as God’s children have the most fun? Shouldn’t we be the most joy-filled of all people?  Shouldn’t we truly enjoy one another and the time we have to gather together? Yes! We should because we have eternal hope. In Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, he has defeated everything that can steal our joy. In his process of remaking us as Christians into his image, he’s consistently restoring joy and gladness even in the midst of discouragement and difficulties. And Paul tells us a little later in Philippians the perspective which gives this joy.

12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:12-13

In Christ’s power, we can face whatever circumstances come our way. In his strength, we can have joy regardless of what we are facing. And in his wisdom, we can have assurance that the light and momentary trials of this world will one day pass, and we will enjoy heaven in Jesus’ presence for all eternity. Joy! True, Christ-shaped joy everywhere.

My church gets this right.  And that’s one reason I love my church!

Other Posts in This Series:

Post 1: Do You Know Why I Love My Church?

Post 2: I Love My Church’s Generosity

Post 3: I Love My Church’s Mission Focus