Sermon from December 10, 2017
Let me preface this sermon by saying no matter how hard we try to focus on Jesus at this time of year there are still many who struggle because they are alone. Even if we are with many people we may still be sad because someone is not with us either through death, separation or divorce. The countless stories of family and loved ones gathered near and the peace that comes from having those you hold dear all together seem to mock those who are alone and cuts you deep inside at this time of year.
The truth is, God made us to have relationships. Even the most independent or biggest loners among us still long for the touch of human contact. Christmas seems to magnify this need especially if we don’t have deep and loving relationships. That means we can be surrounded by people and still be alone and it means, like Scrooge, we will discover that having all the money in the world won’t mean a thing if we don’t have someone to share it with.
Philippians 2:1-4 is not often associated with the Christmas story but it should be because Paul tells us here how to have a Merry Christmas and how to value relationships not only at Christmas but throughout the year. Listen as I read Philippians 2:1-4:
PHP 2:1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
There was a time when I felt overwhelmed by the amount of gifts I had to buy at Christmas. Not only did I need to get gifts for my 5 kids but for parents and brothers and sisters’-in-law and nephews and nieces. I had completely swallowed the false concept that buying someone a gift was the way you valued your relationship. I found myself becoming like Scrooge dreading the debt I needed to incur to please everyone and I was secretly happy when a member of my extended family announced they would not be there for Christmas because it meant one less gift to buy.
Gift giving and buying is nice (we all like to get gifts) but it really doesn’t help us in understanding how to value relationships. This Christmas, how can we give a gift that will mean so much more? How can we give a gift that will last well beyond the time when the last decoration is stored away? How can we truly value relationships this Christmas?
The first way we can value relationships is by…
I wonder why we don’t encourage each other more than we do. May I suggest that Paul touched on the reason in the passage from Philippians I just read? We don’t encourage others more because of our selfish ambition and vain conceit.
We might try to justify our lack of encouragement to others by saying things like, “I don’t want him to get a big head,” or “She already knows how good she is.” But think for a moment: could the real reason we hold back have something to do with our own selfishness? We want to be honored and we want to be respected so if we encourage or lift up someone else the focus is off us.
I don’t know anyone who ever gets tired of true encouragement. At the end of this sermon we are going to have an opportunity to do something very encouraging but right now, think about how you can encourage someone else.
One weekend when I was a student at Miami University, the Christian Campus minister asked if I would preach at the student service for him. I don’t know what prompted him to ask me (I was just an 18 year old freshman who had never preached before) but he did ask and after the message so many of the other kids came up to me and said how much they liked what I had to say and one girl said, “You really should be a preacher.” Now I had not considered that as a career option before. Growing up, I loved hanging around my preacher and the parsonage and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of working at church and a lot of my friends in high school thought I should go to Bible College but I did not want to be a preacher – I wanted to be a writer. When I preached that Sunday at college, I was actually in a crisis and very discouraged about everything. I was not doing well with my Creative Writing classes (in fact a teacher told me point blank that I could not write) and I really did not know what to do. The encouragement I received that Sunday from my peers and friends changed my life. Shortly after that day I applied to Bible college, transferred the next year and here I am today all because someone encouraged me.
Remember the Cratchit home in A Christmas Carol? If anyone had the right to be bitter and sad it was that family – no money, living in squalid conditions and Tiny Tim was so very sick – but instead of being bitter and sad they chose to encourage one another. Can we value the relationships we have by encouraging each other today?
The second way we can value relationships is by…
That may seem like a no-brainer but sometimes I think we misunderstand what love means. We use the word love to describe everything from how we feel about a piece of cake to a new car to our spouse and family. In relationships, we often make love a mushy, sentimental and very warm and fuzzy feeling.
Sadly though, we love that cake until it is gone and our attention moves on to something else. We love that car until it breaks down. And if our relationships are defined by love being a mushy, sentimental and warm and fuzzy feeling it also becomes easy to fall out of love when the romance fades or our spouse disappoints us in some way or the drudgery of everyday life weigh us down.
We use the word love at church a lot but do we actually practice love? I don’t mean do we love those who love us but do we love those who are real jerks? In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy once said to Snoopy, “There are times when you really bug me but I admit there are also times when I feel like giving you a hug.”
Snoopy replied in his thought bubble, “That’s the way I am – huggable and buggable.”
Most people are huggable and buggable, aren’t they? Because no one is perfect people will fail us. The thing you thought was cute when you first dated drives you crazy now. Or sometimes we change (for good or bad) but instead of adjusting to the new reality we give up, leave and start over.
Didn’t God love us and send his son to us while we were sinners – when we were unlovable? Didn’t God give everything he had when we turned our back on him? Didn’t God care so much about us when we could care less? We are far from being huggable yet God loves us. He loves us still.
The best gift we can give this Christmas is our love. Is there someone you need to love? Is there a relationship that needs mending? What better time than at Christmas. Before we buy another present; before we sing another carol; before we trim another tree let us be reconciled and love one another.
The third way we can value relationships is by…
Fellowship is not a planned program (although fellowship can occur then) nor is it something we can force. Fellowship is being able to enjoy each other’s company, to share each other’s needs and to offer encouragement and comfort to each other. It goes beyond small talk and surface questions. I have had to learn that when most people ask, “How are you?” They don’t really want to know. And they especially don’t want to know all the gory details about my problems. In true fellowship we have someone who does want to know and someone whom we can share those gory details with.
There is a reason people don’t always show up for church or church activities and it has to do with the lack of genuine fellowship. Sometimes it may be because of a conflict in scheduling or being out of town or sick and sometimes it may be a real theological reason (they have fallen away from the faith or doubt God’s ability to do the things we claim he can do). But it has been my experience that usually when people stop attending it has less to do with doctrine and more to do with not feeling valued. Have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder if anyone will notice or care if I don’t show up?”
Let me go from preaching to meddling for a moment, ok? Churches like to talk a lot about being a friendly church or a caring church but most often we love only those whom we like and care only about the ones we think can help us. And usually we don’t even know it when we do it. If a visitor enters our assembly do you greet them or talk to them or get to know them and make them feel welcome? Before you answer let me suggest that usually we approach only certain visitors like that. We will fawn all over a visitor who is similar to us (in age, economic background, and cultural or racial similarities) but ignore those who are different, maybe not dressed as nice or obviously poor or not like us in some way. Do we really value relationships or is it all about us? Can we leave our comfort zone and fellowship and have fellowship with someone different?
Finally, we can value relationships by having…
IV. TENDERNESS AND COMPASSION
It is one thing to say we have tenderness and compassion and another to actually demonstrate tenderness and compassion in our lives. The question really though is not so much how do we show tenderness and compassion but what makes us become tender and compassionate?
Paul actually answers that question in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. 2CO 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
We can value our relationships with tenderness and compassion because God has been so tender and compassionate to us. How do we express this tenderness and compassion to others? Think about your relationship with your family, your neighbors, and your co-workers. Do you show tenderness and compassion or do you grump and fuss at them? Why is it so easy to take family for granted and treat them like dirt? If that’s how we treat those closest to us, how can ever truly say we value our relationships? I know we feel very comfortable around those we are closest to and so we let down our guard and instead of asking our spouse, “How was your day?” we snarl, “What’s for dinner?”
My prayer is that we will start to think about ways we can show tenderness and compassion to those closest to us. But let me shift our thinking for just a moment and offer us another way we can value relationships. And it is simple and painless.
Before I came to Sterling, from what I have been able to discover, there were 7 different preachers who served here: Larry Merritt, Phil Walters, Leland Short, Jim Wismer, David Tucker, John Pritchett and John Martin. Some of you may know all those guys, some of you may not. Some were well loved while they were here, some maybe not as much. I have seven pieces of paper on the table and I have prepared a Christmas card or letter for each one. Now I don’t know all their addresses or even if they are all still alive but I am going to try to find out. If you have an address for anyone, please let me know. If they have passed, I will try to send the card to his widow or family. After services, I want you to come up and just sign your name to each letter and when I find their address I will send this paper simply thanking them for the difference they made at Sterling Park Christian Church.
Now I know there were a lot of other people who shaped and formed this congregation – elders and other leaders, associate ministers, and others including all of you – and I encourage you to do something for whoever else might have helped you over the years (to value their relationship). But this is a starting place; a place to begin; a place to really value relationships.