As my best friend is want to say, indecision is the key to flexibility, so just got to roll with what God gives us. Alright, I need you to do me a favor. I need all of you to stand up. All of you to stand up. Babies are excluded. Okay, now I need you to hold still because I need to take some pictures. There you go. Yeah, I can pinch out, but I want this. Thanks for the pointers. Alright, you may be seated, thank you. I have a long history of taking pictures of churches, so here y'all are, and you look so good in your Christmas wear, thank you.
Our scripture reading this morning is two particular passages, actually a verse, and then a longer reading.
The first verse is from a familiar one that you will all know. You probably have it memorized John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
And then over in first John, the fourth chapter, beginning with the seventh verse: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. One who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us. He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Will you pray with me? Gracious God, open our minds to these words and open our hearts to the living Word of Christ, that we may be changed today and forever, amen.
So I don't know about your house, but at our home Hallmark Christmas movies are a constant thing on our TV. I forbid it from being on the TV till Thanksgiving, but after Thanksgiving all bets are off. They're on the screen, they're on the DVR, they're everywhere. Margaret, my wife, really likes them. Me? meh. but I do enjoy sitting with her and watching them so I can make snarky remarks “Like hey, there's only six Hallmark actors in the whole universe. They just switch parts all the time.”
Or how the plots are very, very, very predictable Boy meets girl. They go their separate ways into the world. Boy or girl returns to the old hometown over the holidays. They work out all the issues about their exes, and then they have a time to work through their awkward past. They fall in love and everybody is smiling.
Often there's a dog involved.
Sometimes hot chocolate is served.
As simplistic as those movies are, though, I have to admit sometimes they draw me in against my wishes, because although they aren't dramatic and there isn't great character development, they do touch your heart.
They are simple, clean, heartwarming love stories, and after all, isn't love what Christmas is all about?
We usually go to the Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, to hear the Christmas story, and we'll do that later on this evening at six o'clock, but this morning we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent and we take a big picture view of the meaning of God's love and its connection for us to the Christmas story and to one another.
The importance of the coming of the Christ child is found throughout the Bible.
For instance, we heard it in the reading from Isaiah 16 this morning that the Fischer family shared. “in love a throne will be established in faithfulness. A man will sit on it, one from the house of David,” a projection of the coming of the King of Israel. After all the well-known words of John 3:16 that we shared, “for God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
But not many turn to 1 John during the Advent or Christmas season, and that's too bad, because this fourth chapter of this great letter has a strong focus on the incarnation, the arrival of God in the flesh.
Verse two: “every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
Verse nine: “this is how God showed His love among us. He sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. This is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins”
Verse 14: “We have seen and testified that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they are in God.”
For John, clearly, the coming of Jesus is the coming of the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Savior. And the birth of a baby in Bethlehem is not just a sweet story, but it is a story of God's saving love to all of us.
If Christ is not our personal Lord and Savior, then Christmas means nothing.
It's a waste of time. We are still dead in our sin and all we have left around us is the fluff of a holiday. But with Christ at the center of our hearts, Christmas is a profound, life-changing holy day.
Christianity is not just one of many paths to God. The birth of Jesus is God's true revelation to the world. God has arrived in person to show, to demonstrate His love to all of us. You see, it matters what we believe in this world and in the world to come.
So knowing about God, having a right way of thinking, is important. Christmas love is about right theology and thinking and sound thought, but it is also a matter of the heart. Christmas love is about right attitude and right action.
Christmas love is about our relationship with God, first and foremost, but secondly it is about our relationships with one another. The two are intertwined. We saw that several weeks ago as we worked our way through the Ten Commandments, the first set dealing with our relationship with God, the second part dealing with our relationships with one another through God, God and others. We are to care about both. It isn't either or; it's both and.
We are also familiar with Jesus sharing of what he termed the greatest commandment in Matthew 22, love the Lord, god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. He said. This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is, like it, love your neighbor as yourself, a distillation of all that we shared in the Ten Commandments in the Jewish law, and here, in 1 John 4, we find much of the same.
Verse 7, dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.
Verse 11, dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Verse 20, whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar, for whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
Verse 21,. He has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Now we've talked during the Advent season about how we can make sure that we put ourselves in position to express God's love to others in tangible ways helping those in need, praying for those who are struggling, comforting those who are lonely. We do this for their benefit, but we also talked about how we do it for our benefit as well.
But doing so may require change, not only in our actions, but a deeper change, a change of our attitude as well. It may require forgiveness, it may require repentance, it may require some tears, but that is often the path to healing and to experiencing the true love of Christ at Christmas.
Now, that can be especially hard this time of year.
During the next week, many of us will gather with families or with friends. The whole truth is, we may be estranged from some of our family. We may be on the outs with some of our lifelong friends. It could be hard.
It seems that often, the closer we are to people, the more likely we are to rub up against each other and cause friction.
So, get over it. Make an attempt to share Christian love, to share Christ, to share Christmas love. Remember that as God loves us, we are commanded to love others. It's a total package. Let the true joy of Christmas bring us hope, peace, joy and love.
Now allow me to share a few personal thoughts about love at Christmas.
This week I will be bringing a close to many years of ministry through the United Methodist Church in full-time appointment. The church has loved me and I in turn love the church. Best things in my life have come to me through the church: my faith, my family and my friends. Thank you.
God has used the church and the Methodist way to call me into ministry, and several bishops have mistakenly seen fit in this annual conference to send me forth to do ministry. Now I've done so willingly and faithfully because of what John states in verse 10: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” That's the message we are sent, to proclaim that His Son came as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, for my sin and for yours.
Now, my ministry has taken me from one end of Mississippi to the other. I have served in some of the very smallest churches in our annual conference, as well as the very largest, and I have loved them all. And particularly or in particular, I have loved this church, you.
Six years ago, I was in a cabinet meeting (Giles can vouch for this because we had talked just a couple hours earlier) and I was making appointments for other clergy in the state. And as I did so, literally the next minute, I found myself in the bishop’s office and he was appointing me to come to Starkville First.
Bishop Swanson moves quick when he needs to.
Of course, I knew about this church and your great legacy and the great reputation that this congregation has for ministry. Some of your former pastors are my friends and my mentors. Some of them God bless them, Bob (Whiteside), Jim (Ormon), Giles (Lindley) have actually served as my district superintendent. Upon my arrival you welcome to me and you welcome to Margaret into your lives and you made us feel at home and part of your church family and your community and we will be forever grateful.
I remember good times, sad times, funny times, serious times. I remember hospital rooms and hallways, funeral homes and funerals. I will remember baptisms and weddings and a holy communion, Christmas parades and community stations of the cross, Easter sunrise at Dodson Farms and, of course, Christmas Eve candlelight worship, as in tonight. Did I mention it's at six?
We’ve had wonderful music and worship programs over the years and I am thankful for all those who work so hard, time after time, to enhance our worship experiences. Y'all have even let me sing from time to time and occasionally allowed me to toot my own horn with the brass ensemble. Children, youth, adults all working together to lead us in worship and praise simply a beautiful thing.
Now, my first event at this church involved children. It was Vacation Bible School. I walked up here unannounced. Nobody knew I was coming. I just popped in and took about 15 minutes for anybody to notice me. What a great thing to start a ministry with children.
Our acolytes have become some of my favorite people in this church and I've loved all these children's sermons, especially when some five-year-old outwits Genny. You've done a good job, ms Fischer, we're all grateful.
I especially treasure all the little notes or the artwork that many of your children have handed me as they left the church over the years. I treasure them all and as I receive them as gifts, I want to tell you I love all of our kids.
I've loved our older kids and have rejoiced as our youth have grown deeper in their love of Jesus and developed a sense of service beyond themselves. Show Jesus, that's what we tell them. Thanks, Mattie B, for instilling that love in their hearts.
You know we've got some great teenagers. They are always good for a laugh, but they're also good for a prayer and occasionally good for a sermon. Thank you, you've got to let me get in your group so you let me crash Tuesday morning Chick-fil-A breakfast and you let me crash your retreats and your mission trips. I am proud of the Christian men and women that our teens have become. Thank you all for letting me be a part of your lives.
This church has some outstanding mission outreach. Laundry love and its spin-offs are touching lives as an amazing gift of love from the Lord. Exam slam is a fantastic outreach to our university community and so many others that I don't even have time to list them all. I'm grateful for the opportunities to share in those and to be a part of the way this church reaches the community and the world for Jesus.
I certainly remember all the challenges we faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The media folks taught me a lot of things we had to learn in a hurry. I learned about the importance of the big red button in broadcasting services. I learned about inside terminology like K-18 and the Ring of fire, things like that. Creative responses to changing circumstances.
Now, as a congregation, you were gracious mostly during that and you adapted as necessary. This allowed our church to quickly regain its footing and begin to once again pick up our growth. I've seen God at work here as children have become teenagers and teenagers have become adults and many of us adults have become grandparents. How awesome is that? Thank you all for the honor of being your pastor and sharing your lives with us.
But we can't just look backwards. It's like trying to drive a car using the rear view mirror. You've got to look through the windshield to see what's ahead.
So my prayer is that you will continue, as the people of God, to mature in your Christian faith. May your love grow deeper, a love filled with knowledge and discernment. I lift before you a future filled with hope and with the knowledge of holiness that God provides us Now.
I'm well aware that the last few months have been very difficult in many ways. I'm here to tell you I share your experience in every way, but I'm also here to tell you New Year's around the corner. It's time to move forward.
Take a breath, learn to love one another, as God loves us.
Love those who are here among you and love those who have been led to new fields of ministry. The kingdom of God is much bigger than any one church or any one denomination. May all of God's people flourish by God's grace.
Sometimes people will say something to me like I wish we were more like a New Testament church. Well, the fact is we are a New Testament church.
Jesus had problems with His apostles fighting amongst each other.
The book of Acts tells us of several times where there were divisions in the early church, including a split between Peter and Paul no less than those two guys.
In fact, most of Paul's letters are written to chastised churches for their bad behavior. I assure you we are no better nor worse than our spiritual ancestors.
So, as our church moves into a new year, recognize that there will be changes and there will be challenges, but this congregation has some of the most highly educated people in the whole annual conference. There is nothing you can't accomplish with God's help, and he will be able to do incredible things through you in the days to come.
This congregation has been served over the years by tremendous lay leadership, and I want to thank them all for their hard work and their integrity in all things.
I am also deeply grateful for this incredible church staff that we have assembled, who have shared in this ministry. You have been faithful to carry out your work in very difficult circumstances and you have honored the Lord by doing so. You are more than colleagues. You are spiritual family and lifelong friends. I love you all deeply.
Several people said to me when they found out that I was pulling retirement, “you can go, preacher, but Margaret is staying.” I agree and I understand.
I want to thank my wife, margaret, for making my ministry easier over all the years. She is a wonderful companion and her willing spirit and encouragement and her prayer life have kept me going.
So I leave with mixed emotions. We are excited about what the future holds. It's a little uncertain, in fact it's a lot uncertain, but we are sad to leave our friends here. Plus, I hate moving, which is a bad thing for a Methodist preacher. I hate it emotionally and I hate it physically, but know that God's timing is not the same as our timing. I don't always understand it, sometimes I don't like it, but over the years I've learned that God's timing is always right.
So with that in mind, let me speak a word on behalf of the incoming pastors.
Jimmy Cason brings a wealth of training and large church experience to serve in this community. He has a pastor's heart and will be among you in faithful service in so many ways.
Brian Gordon comes with a deep commitment to this congregation on a personal level and he is a faithful servant of the church. He is also familiar with this community and is a loyal bulldog through and through.
These pastors are called by God to ministry and authorized and sent by the church to serve. They have special gifts and graces which will be helpful for this congregation, and I know you will welcome them and their families with much love and warmth.
Realize that while changing pastors can be difficult for a church, changing churches is always difficult for a pastor.
New pastors face many unknowns with a new community and a new congregation, and it is essential that you rapidly become their friends and their spiritual family.
As of Wednesday, I will no longer be your pastor, but I will always be your friend.
Having said that, though, I want you to know we hope to see you around from time to time. We will be headed south in order to be closer to our roots and our family, but if you're headed south, come see us. We'll let you know where we are. Presumably we'll have an extra room in our double wide.
I guarantee you we will be in Starkville, because there is still Bulldog Women's Basketball to be played, and Margaret told me we will be in Starkville.
We love y'all very much.
In summary, it is that love that binds us together, God's love for us, our mutual love for God and our love for one another, a love that comes to us in the person of a new baby whose birth we celebrate this day; a Christmas love, a gift given to us all.
May you receive that gift this morning, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Merry Christmas and amen.