Merry Christmas

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What an incredible year! This year I celebrated 25 years at Hillside Christian Church and 35 years since my ordination. It is hard to believe it has been that long. I have had a wonderful life and even though there have been a lot of ups and downs, I have no regrets. Hillside has blessed me far more than anything I could give.

The church has been challenging this year. It seems we have been in an eternal search for a Minister For Faith Development. So many deaths of people that I have grown to love and care about. But there have been good times too. Maundy Thursday Service was a real highlight, with the reinactment of the Last Supper! I finished on the General Board and with service to Disciples Home Missions. While I enjoyed the ministry, I grew tired of the politics. I took the singles in the congregation to Las Vegas. It was fun. If you have never been on Fairmont Street at two in the morning, don’t! Why? Because what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

All the family was together for a week in May. Our family journey took us to Louisville, Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby. It was wonderful to be together as a family and it was exciting to be at the Derby to watch the first Triple Crown Winner in a long time. Peter and Nora won $6.00 each on the winner of the Derby. The only bad part of the race was it took three hours to get out the parking lot. Gee, there were a lot of people.

Brooks, Dan, Peter and Nora are still in Portland. Brooks had surgery on her feet earlier in the year and will have to have some more surgery after the first of the year. Something about faulty parenting genes. I had a chance to fly up to Portland and visit for a few days. Peter and Nora are really growing and are sad that their mother won’t let them come and play with Clyde more often.

Jonathan is still practicing law in Wichita and doing well. He was engaged but they called it off. He is now dating a nice young lady, and I think my being clergy scares her to death. Jonathan prides himself on being busy and self sufficient and I rarely get to see him.

Of course, I am planning a trip in 2016 to Spain. My big trip this year was to Thailand. I know, it sounds odd that a Christian and a preacher, wants to see the Golden Buddha. My friend Clay and my cousin Zee traveled with me.

Paul writes (1 Cor 10:12) So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. How many times I have questioned that statement. Yet, each time I have found Paul right. God is good! When faced with challenges, God is faithful to give me a way out. He always seems to know my limit and my ability. Praise God. May this Christmas you realize the ongoing gift that God has given to you. God is present. God is faithful. God is great. Merry Christmas

A Look At The Virgin Birth

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Dealing with an article on the virgin birth is like preaching against motherhood, apple pie and the American way. I am for motherhood, I like apple pie and I am an American. Likewise, I believe in the virgin birth. So I don’t want anyone to read this and say, “Dr. McConnell doesn’t believe in the virgin birth.” The point of this sermon is not to prove the virgin birth, because it cannot be proven. It is something we accept by faith.

The point of this is to force us to look at some of the absurdities that we put in place as Christians. The chasm between conservative and liberal Christians has grown wider over the generations. And those who consider themselves moderates seem to be rejected or outcast by both sides. In the frontier days of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) there was a saying, “In Essentials Unity, In Nonessentials Liberty.”

Billy Graham tells of a time early in his ministry when he was in a small town to preach. Wanting to mail a letter, he stopped a young boy on the street and asked directions to the Post Office. When the boy had told him, Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist church this evening, I’ll be telling everyone how to get to heaven.” The boy replied, “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”

I have witnessed churches drawing battle lines over the virgin birth. I know of Search Committees that ask the candidate, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” And demanding a simple “yes” or “no.” The message is clear; all good Christians believe in the virgin birth, heretics do not. The mature Christian soon learns that there are degrees of perception in scripture and degrees of what is significant.

The University of Louisville Cardinals arrived in Hawaii for a basketball tournament. When they entered a practice gym in Maui, the team soon realized that there were no basketballs on hand. As they discussed what to do, a youngster with an old, beat-up basketball entered the gym. Team members explained their problem and offered to buy the ball. Though the price kept climbing-$15, then $20, finally $50 – he continued to refuse. Finally, the team managers arranged for basketballs to be delivered. As the youngster prepared to leave, one player turned to tell him he’d been dumb to turn down that much money. “Oh yeah?” he replied. “At least I’m smart enough to take a basketball along when I practice.”

The problem is that while we make the virgin birth a big issue, scripture does not! In scripture, maternity (mother) is never as much of an issue as paternity (father). In American law there are some issues that are not debatable. If a man and a woman are married, and a child is born to that union, and he accepts paternity, it is no longer a debatable issue. As long as he claims fatherhood, no one can take that away. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Paternity is established! From that point on it really doesn’t matter who the mother is or was. The most important link has been affirmed, God is the father. Regardless now who the mother is, God is the father. The issue, as far as scripture is concerned, is settled.

There are three points that must be considered: The text itself reveals how unimportant the issue really is. Things that are really important are constantly repeated. The resurrection of Jesus, The Ten Commandments, Circumcision, Apostleship, etc. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that talk about the virgin birth. Why are Mark and John silent? Even in Matthew and Luke the two gospels declare Jesus’ genealogies back to Joseph and not Mary. Jesus never made belief in the virgin birth as a condition of discipleship and in fact never appears to have talked about it. None of Paul’s letters in the New Testament talk about the virgin birth, they are completely silent. Of all of the first preaching about Jesus that history has preserved, none talk about the virgin birth.

The second point is the word “virgin” itself. The Greek word is “PAR-THEN’-OS”. The Hebrew word is “BETH-OO-LAW”. The interesting part is that both words mean the same, “maiden.” The same word for maiden, unmarried woman, girl and virgin. When Mary says to the Angel, LUK 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” She was always saying, “since I am unmarried.” Many newer translations use the words maiden or girl over the term virgin. Our English language and even our interpretation of scripture was greatly influenced by the King James Bible. Written in 1611 during the Victorian age.

The third point that has influenced us has been the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Mary. The days soon came when the Church glorified virginity and held that the highest Christian life was to be celibate. That is why Priest don’t marry. But the Roman Church began to move more toward the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin. That is why Mary is held in such reverence in the church. The Roman Church believed that Mary never had sex with Joseph. The church taught that those in scripture considered brother and sisters of Jesus were either: children of a previous marriage of Joseph, or cousins, of another Mary. This has so influenced the Church that this is why we have the word “virgin” in so many of our creeds. While Mary certainly was a special person, as Protestants, we see her as another human being. In all other aspects family life for Mary and Joseph was normal. Mary went on to have a normal marriage and I suspect a healthy sex life.

The story of the virgin birth has its place in scripture. It fulfills prophecy, that a maiden, an unmarried girl (we assume a virgin) had a male child. The uniqueness of the situation, points to God. I believe she was a virgin because of the tradition she lived in. The faithful and obedient persons she and Joseph were.

But my faith rests on the belief that, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Not on who His mother was. Or what type of person she was.

The Magi’s Fourth Gift

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Probably sometime before the birth of Christ, maybe beginning as early as the conception of Christ, a star appeared over Bethlehem. It was apparently not a very bright star for the inhabitants of Bethlehem and Jerusalem had not noticed the star. Some have argued that it was a very natural occurrence. The alignment of Jupiter with Saturn. Or the alignment of Venus and Jupiter. But there it was – unusual, out of place! Probably more supernatural than natural. So much so that Magi, or wise men somewhere from the East, probably Babylon came to see the meaning. These Magi were very educated and were very knowledgeable about astrology. They had been trained and gifted in the interpretation of dreams. Knowing and believing in the “one God”, they knew the Old Testament. NUM 24:17 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.

One gift that the magi brought to Christ exceeded all the others in value. One gift. One gift alone!

Was it the frankincense? Frankincense was a “white fragrant tree gum” from Arabia. I suppose if we look at the setting of the birth of Christ: born in a stable with all of those animals, there may not be a gift more appreciated than frankincense. It might mask the odors of the barn. But in truth, Matthew has nothing of the stable in its story, that is found only in Luke. Frankincense was used in the Temple offering. Used to mask the orders of the sacrifice. But not the sacrifice for sin. So the frankincense was a way of saying that Jesus was a gift to the world. That Jesus would be a sacrifice. Not a sacrifice of sin but a sacrifice to forgive sin.

So if it is not the frankincense that exceeded all the others in value, perhaps it was the myrrh. Myrrh was an extract from a tree that was used for embalming. JOH 19:39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. This gift of myrrh shows an understanding of who this child is and why He has come into the world. This child will die. The woman at Bethany will later pour costly ointment over Jesus and be praised by Him because “she has prepared me for burial.” This gift reminds us that the birth of this child brings us face to face with death: with its fear and pain, but also with its ultimate transformation.

Perhaps the richest gift is the most obvious one of all, gold. Money is always needed. Jesus is poor, the scripture says that He “had no place to lay his head.” Seems as wise as savings bonds! When my two were born, no one gave gold. We got things like diapers, bottles, baby powder, etc. Gold would have been helpful. If Joseph and Mary are to take the child to Egypt, the gold will be necessary. After all God does provide. Strange how God does provide our needs, before we are even aware of our needs. And yet how much value can gold represent to one who says that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as splendidly as a single lily in the field?

If the one gift of greatest value is not the frankincense, not the myrrh, not the gold, then what is it? It is the fourth gift which the magi brought. The fourth gift is there in the text. Matthew mentions it three times! Which is more times than Matthew mentions frankincense, myrrh or gold. This makes it important, much more important.

The fourth gift is to pay homage to Christ. To kneel, to worship, to adore, to give one’s whole being to Christ. Early in the text we find the whole purpose for the journey to Judea. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Why is Herod and all of Jerusalem disturbed? They have gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold. But they do not have the most important gift.

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 and of incense and of myrrh. What was the greatest gift? “they worshiped Him.”

Named by the Angels, Jesus

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Did you hear about the man who was both a veterinarian and a taxidermist? His motto was: “Either way, you get your dog back!” The sweet little old lady met the pastor at the church door and said to him, “Pastor your sermons are like the peace of God,” to which the pastor’s wife added, “That’s right – they pass all understanding.”

From the very beginning God had a plan. That plan had taken into account the scams of the Devil, and the unpredictability of humanity. Unlike you and me, God was not created. God has always been in existence. No beginning and no end! It is like the three watt bulb that has been burning in a northern California fire station continually for 85 years. General Electric would like to examine it to make sure they never make that mistake again. We don’t understand how God can do that, we simply know that is the way it is.

God was alone. It was God’s desire to have companionship and worship. So God created Heaven and in Heaven He created the angelic host. The angelic host included the Seraphim (Six wings), Cherubim (Two wings and covering the mercy seat), Archangel (Michael), and the Angels. The first two, the Seraphim and Cherubim, have to do with the worship of God and cover the holiness of God. The latter two, are the servants, the hands and the feet of God. God can do anything that God wants to do. While at times God even directly intervenes, it appears most work is carried out by His angels.

Of all the supernatural beings mentioned in the Scriptures, it is the angels who are constantly depicted as being identified with heaven. When the angel of God called to Hagar in the wilderness, we read that this call was heard “out of heaven”. When the angel appeared at the time of the vision which Jacob had at Bethel, he saw a ladder reaching to heaven on which the angels of God were ascending and descending. Often the angels are called “the heavenly ones” or “the heavenly host”. When the angelic host had finished their song to the shepherds, we read that “the angels went away from them into heaven”. It was an angel “from heaven” that rolled away the stone at the tomb where our Lord was buried.

These angels that were companions for God also became companions for the believer. The role of angels in our lives is very important. John is visited by an angel when “The Revelation” is given to him. Angel’s protect us from things that we are not even aware are happening. For Daniel, the angel closed the mouths of the lions. Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “`He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus does not deny that the angels will protect Him.

About my junior year of college I would drive back home on the weekends. The trip was 100 miles. Late one Sunday night on the road returning, my car quit running. It was a desolate section with strange secluded homes. The car quit right in front of one house. The man was an auto mechanic and repaired the car. The only mechanic for 30 miles! That is the work of an angel.

Who better than the angels to announce the coming of the Messiah? To Mary the angel said, LUK 1:31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. What is in a name? EVERYTHING! For the Hebrew people the name was very important. William means “determined protector.” In the Old Testament prophecies the Messiah was called: Immanuel, which mean “God with us.” This was to remind the people that God had not forgotten them.

Now the angels call Him, Jesus. Jesus is the Greek word for “savior.” In Hebrew it is Joshua, “savior.” Don’t miss the importance of the account in Joshua 5:13. (Joshua 5:13-15) Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” No angel ever permitted a human being to worship them. Worship is reserved for God and God alone. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he takes off his sandals, because he is in the presence of God. Here we find Joshua the savior of the Hebrew people meeting Jesus the savior of all humanity.

The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

Messiah is the Hebrew word for “anointed.” The Greek word for “anointed” is Christ. The Apostle Paul loves to put the name “Jesus” (the savior) and the title “Christ” (the anointed) together. Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus, the Anointed Savior (Philippians 2:9-11). Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….

Lois Rahal shared with the Church Board one time something that happened in the Christian Education department. A little boy about 6 or 7 had attended Sunday school and Wednesday night activities for a couple of months. As this little boy was leaving one Wednesday night his teacher said, “We sure did like having you here tonight.” The little boy turns to the lady who brought him and said, “That’s what I like about this Church, there is so much love.” Heaven is filled with so much love that not even the angels could keep from sharing the love and power of heaven.