The desire to get Christmas right didn’t end on Christmas day, because our desire was not just to get a day right. There’s an after story to the birth of Jesus, of interruptions and changed plans. What we learn through the after story, as well as others in the Bible, is that we can get a life right with the right focus. As we head towards the New Year the question we have to ask is, what will our focus be?
- I will release my past to God’s redemptive work of grace in my life.
- I will not allow my past to negatively influence what God has ahead of me.
- I will let go of the weight of shame and guilt and embrace God’s redemptive love.
- I will focus on what’s ahead and not dwell on what’s behind.
- I will press on towards Christ-centered living.
Hey everyone, my name is Scott and I’m one of the pastors here.
Two days ago, we celebrated Christmas and my prayer is that yours included joy and hope in the midst of what has felt like and been an interruption of life this year.
I recently had a thought that’s never occurred to me before.
What were Joseph and Mary thinking two days after Jesus’ birth?
What were they thinking one week later or a month later?
I wonder if their thought was, what now? Or, what’s next?
You see, the story of Christmas doesn’t end with the birth of Jesus.
We celebrate Christmas, and then pack it up and move on.
The presents have been opened, the decorations and lights get put away, the tree is taken down and thrown out on the sidewalk or collapsed and boxed up.
But the story of Christmas isn’t simply a day on a calendar that comes and then goes.
The story of Christmas is not simply about a birth, but a beginning.
There’s an after story to Christmas.
Here’s what I mean. Look with me in the book of Matthew.
(Matthew 2:1-5) After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied…
The Magi, or maybe you’ve heard them referred to as wise men, come to Jerusalem looking for a King who has been born.
They’ve been following a star in the sky that has led them to this point.
I’m sure some of you were aware a week ago that the “Star of Bethlehem” as it’s called was visible for the first time in almost eight centuries. It’s not actually a star, but the alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the sky, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless to think this may have been what the magi were following.
They show up in Jerusalem and start asking where they can find the King that has been born so they could worship him.
And notice who they’re asking. Herod, the king.
Herod had been appointed king over the Jews by Roman authority, the occupying empire of the land.
History tells us he was a very capable politician and ruler, but also a brutal one.
Over the course of his rule, he would murder one of his wives, several of his sons, and other relatives in an effort to protect his position.
He was rich, powerful, and paranoid.
He wasn’t one to share power with anyone, especially another king.
So, hearing of this new King, Herod does his homework to find out who the magi are looking for.
Then he meets with them and says, listen, when you find this child king, shoot me a message so I can go and worship him too.
The magi continue on their journey following the star, and eventually find and worship the child Jesus.
Now, I don’t want to ruin your beautiful nativity scene, but the magi were not present at the birth of Jesus. It makes for a beautiful scene, but not a historically accurate one.
They come to the home of Joseph and Mary, not a stable.
Jesus has a toddler bed at this point. He’s outgrown the manger.
This is about two years after his birth.
So, don’t toss these guys from your set, but file that away in your mind.
After they worship Jesus and present him with their gifts, we read an interesting verse.
(Matthew 2:12) And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
They’re warned that Herod’s intentions are not what he said, and they need to head home by a different route, avoid him completely, and do not let him know where Jesus is.
And they do.
The story continues.
(Matthew 2:13-15) When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.
Now Joseph has a dream, and an angel appears to him again, telling him, you need to leave, now!
King Herod is on his way to kill Jesus.
Go to Egypt and stay there until I tell you to return.
Now, pause here for a moment.
This is two years after Jesus’ birth. Two years.
There’s a lot of life that happens in two years. You get into routines, establish patterns, and develop friends.
You’ve adapted to the new normal of parenthood and the changes that it brings.
They’ve begun to build and establish a life for themselves.
I imagine Joseph, as a carpenter, has set up his business, probably has a little workspace.
Mary no doubt has her hands full with a two-year-old, even though it’s two-year-old Jesus.
And then, one night, a dream, a warning.
In a moment, life was interrupted.
What do you imagine Joseph felt or thought?
What would you feel or think?
What have you felt and thought in the interruptions of life over this last year?
The problem with interruptions is that they are never part of our plan.
Job loss, divorce, financial loss, pandemics.
The authorities coming to kill your child.
We don’t schedule events like these on a calendar.
I’ll be honest and say I struggle with interruptions. I always have, and most likely always will.
I’m such a pattern person, I don’t like to be taken out of my routine, out of my expected plan.
My first reaction is usually, Are you serious? Are you kidding me?
I catch myself with this reaction all the time. And I’m working on it!
But Joseph listens and obeys.
He wakes Mary and Jesus, they pack up and head off to Egypt, a foreign land to escape a genocidal king.
The dream didn’t include a plan or contact information for who to reach out to when they arrived.
There was no timetable for an expected return.
Just Go. NOW!
And the warning proved accurate.
(Matthew 2:16) When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
It’s referred to as the Massacre or Slaughter of the Innocents.
Every boy age two and under in and around Bethlehem was murdered.
Herod would stop at nothing to protect his rule.
We don’t know the exact timetable of how long Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in Egypt, but eventually Joseph has a third dream where the angel tells him Herod is dead and it’s safe to return and they do.
The story of Joseph and Mary had some very real interruptions, much like our life stories.
Interruptions they hadn’t planned on or planned for, that they couldn’t have seen coming.
I find it slightly humorous looking back to January of this year when churches were full of messages about “20/20 Vision” and all that God was going to do in the year 2020, the great things that were in store.
20/20 vision is the ability to clearly see what’s in front of you.
But no one saw 2020 coming.
There’s another phrase we’ve all heard, hindsight is 20/20, the idea that when looking back things become clearer than we could see in the moment.
That one feels more appropriate as we end the year, doesn’t it?
Both are beneficial as another January is right around the corner.
The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who was usually depicted as a man with two faces. One face looked back into the year that had passed and that face showed sorrow and dismay. The other face looked forward into the coming new year and showed signs of hope and confidence.
For us, January starts the new year.
We count down, the ball drops, and we all get a fresh start, right?
But what do we do with the interruptions, the ones that changed the course we were on, the plans we had made?
What do we do with the interruptions that may still not have an ending in sight?
In a moment we’ll look at how to approach and navigate the interruptions of life through the encouragement of someone who had many of his own.
There’s a certain comfort found in knowing that we’re not the only ones going through an experience, an interruption; that others have, or are, facing the same challenges or struggles. We realize we’re not alone.
And just as we’ve seen in the after story of Christmas, we’re not the first, and won’t be the last, to have to navigate through interruptions.
Paul, one of the most, if not the most, influential early church leader after Jesus, had a few life interruptions of his own.
He had set a course for his life as a religious elite in the Jewish faith; highly educated, successful, a rising star.
But his success was built on persecuting Christ-followers, working to destroy this movement that had begun around a faith in Jesus.
And then an INTERRUPTION.
Jesus meets him on a road, and Paul, or Saul as he was known then, is changed forever by the grace of God.
He spends the next three years sort of off the map, and when he resurfaces preaching Jesus, a plot to kill him hatches so he escapes and goes off the map again, this time for a number of years.
He resurfaces again in Jerusalem, possibly 14 years after his experience with Jesus, and now begins to travel the Mediterranean declaring the love and grace of Christ and starting churches.
And he’s beaten and left for dead. INTERRUPTION.
He’s incarcerated twice. INTERRUPTIONS.
We see that Paul is familiar with life’s interruptions.
I want to spend the next few minutes looking at something he said during one of these interruptions.
He’s writing to the Christ-followers in the city of Philippi, and he’s writing while incarcerated in Rome.
And what he says gives us insight and encouragement in how to handle our interruptions.
(Philippians 3:13-14) … But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
One thing I do.
How many of you are only doing one thing?
More likely you’re thinking “if one MORE thing gets added!”
There was a period of four and half years that I was a single parent every other week.
It’s sounds more challenging than it really was because my daughters were in high school and at that age, pretty self-sufficient.
But I remember often thinking, I don’t know how single parents do this, balance everything for year after year after year.
I cannot begin to imagine what you as a single parent are experiencing in the challenges this year.
2020 has been one thing after another added to our plates, our to-do lists, our responsibilities, our worries, our fears, our hurts, our struggles.
For Paul, and for us, there is one thing we can do that will have the greatest influence and impact on our lives.
He begins with “forgetting what is behind.”
There’s an old Arab proverb that states that you should write the bad things that happen in the sand, so that they can be easily erased from your memory.
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could wave a magic wand and forget.
But that’s not reality. Don’t misunderstand what he’s saying.
He’s not saying to erase your memory like a scene from Men in Black 1, or 2, or 3 or 4.
There are events and experiences in life, that as hard as we try or want to, they will never be forgotten.
There are scars of abuse, neglect, abandonment, betrayal, loss. The list could go on.
But Paul’s thought, and the Bible’s concept of forgetting, is not to erase from your memory as if it never happened.
To forget in the Bible means to no longer to be influenced or affected by.
The idea is to not allow what has happened and cannot be changed to impact our today or our tomorrow.
A question for you. What’s in your past that you need to break the influential power of over your life?
Regrets, failure, abuse, neglect, loss, waste, addiction, disappointment?
Maybe over the last 10 months it’s been anger issues,
drinking too much,
loss of income or career,
or abusive behavior.
The danger of the past and its influence of our present is that it can often lead to going back into repeating patterns, self-destructive patterns, or at the very least, remaining stuck in the moment of a memory.
Author Ramon Presson wrote, “The past can be an antique mall of old hurts, wounds, offenses, rejections, neglect, abuse, lack of opportunity, missed opportunities, and squelched dreams… but a large measure of the past’s power and control in our lives is authorized by us. Some of us are so weighed down by our past that we are practically carrying our tombstone to announce that we are no longer really living – they just haven’t buried our body yet.”
Paul has his own horrific past, of persecuting people, destroying lives and families and communities.
He has blood on his hands, being present at and condoning the killing of a Christ-follower early on.
And yet, as a result of his experience with the grace and love of Christ, the shame, guilt, and regret that he had to have felt has been redeemed and erased.
Shame and guilt are unbelievably powerful weights that only bring destruction.
Here’s what happens when someone walks in shame and guilt relationally.
Whether they know it or not, they will sabotage the relationships around them out of a twisted, strange need to control.
“I will keep you at a distance so that you won’t really know me, and you won’t have the opportunity to reject me.”
Or “I can make you reject me by my choice, so that you won’t end up rejecting me by yours.”
Often this is seen in those who have been sexually or physically abused, because they blame themselves for what was done to them when they were kids, or when they were at that party in high school or college, or when they could not escape an abuser in the midst of a shut down due to a global pandemic.
This is a scenario that is all too familiar for some of you.
And it’s a result of shame, that there’s something wrong with you or unlovable about you because of something you’ve done or was done to you.
Now, here’s the life changing truth.
The power of God’s redemptive love is the destruction of the power of the past over you.
Let me say it again.
The power of God’s redemptive love is the destruction of the power of the past over you.
Others of us believe that we’ve simply gone too far.
We have sinned more powerfully than Jesus’ death on the cross and his grace can forgive.
God’s redemptive love can’t be for us because of this, this, and this…and this.
And yet, here’s Paul, clear evidence that God will forgive, redeem, empower and use those who have done wicked, evil, destructive actions.
This is how God’s grace overcomes our past, because the gospel takes what was meant for destruction and reconciles, redeems and restores what was broken.
This is how the past is forgotten.
We have to face our past.
We have to heal from our past.
We have to overcome our past.
We have to learn from our past.
BUT we DO NOT live in our past.
Paul is encouraging us to let go of the past through the grace of God and lean into what’s ahead of us.
He says, “forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead…”
The verb “straining toward” literally means “stretching as in a race.”
To stretch your muscles to their limit.
Stretched to the limit is a good description of 2020, wouldn’t you agree?
In the Greek Olympic Games, a chariot was often used in events.
Thanks to movies, we often think of a chariot as a sort of a pimped-out horse drawn carriage.
It wasn’t. It was really only a small platform with a wheel on each side.
The driver had very little to hold onto when racing around a course. They had to lean forward and strain every nerve and muscle to maintain balance, to control the horses and navigate the course.
It was a lot of effort, but it was with a goal in mind. To finish the race.
Paul’s words aren’t empty words of “just be positive” thinking and everything will work out.
Paul didn’t know what was ahead of him as he wrote. Remember, he’s presently incarcerated.
Would he be free or still in prison, alive or dead in the coming days, weeks, months?
He didn’t know.
But whatever it would be, he was going to decide the intention and the focus he would live with.
He was going to use every muscle he had leaning into what was ahead of him, trusting and believing that God had him covered.
Earlier in this letter, he laid the framework for this attitude when he said, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
His confidence was that if God started something with and in his life, he could trust that God would not quit halfway through but would complete it.
He continues with, “I press on.”
Some of you need that encouragement, or challenge, today.
Don’t give up. Press on.
Don’t give in. Press on.
Don’t look back. Press on.
Eyes forward. Keep moving. Press on.
There’s a phrase I heard years ago that has stuck with me.
Pastor and author Andy Stanley said, “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.”
Let me say it again. Direction, not intention, determines your destination.
He calls it the Principle of the Path.
The principle is this; if we intend for a certain outcome in any area of our life, we will never achieve the desired result if the path that we are following does not lead us to that destination.
Intention alone is not enough. Intention alone will not accomplish our goal.
Our direction has to be taking us towards our goal.
Do you ever wonder why you feel stuck or stagnant in life?
In your career? Your relationships? Your finances? Spiritually?
You’ve set goals, you love those around you, but there’s no progression forward, there’s no growth.
Your intentions are good and right, but stop and look at what you’re doing, or what you’re not doing.
That defines the direction you’re heading in any and every arena of life.
You see, if my intention is to build a retirement income for later in life, but my spending today matches or exceeds my income, it doesn’t matter what my retirement intention is, my direction is not taking me to that destination.
If my intention is to love those around me, and nurture those relationships, but I spend more time at work, or on the golf course, or lost in social media, the direction of my relationships will not match my intentions.
The same is true in our relationship with God, with our spiritual growth. If our intention is to live a Christ-centered life, but we rarely spend time in the Bible for ourselves, don’t have a conversational life of prayer with God, if the spiritual time of our week is sixty-ish minutes online, there will not be much growth or centeredness. That’s not the direction our actions are leading us.
Direction, not intention, determines your destination.
Paul is saying, along with the good and Godly intentions you have, set your direction “…toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
The word used here for prize is an athletic term. In ancient Greek culture, the winner’s prize was typically some kind of crown, made from either olive branches, celery or pine needles.
The winner might also be awarded a statue of themselves, a poem, or even money.
Beginning to sound a bit better.
But this is not the prize Paul is after.
Take some time in the next couple of days to read this entire letter to the Philippian Christ-followers, and what you’ll find is that the prize Paul is after is to know Christ in his fullness.
Paul’s prize is a Christ-centered life.
In the sentence before what we read today Paul says it clearly.
(Philippians 3:10-11) “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
The Christ-centered life has a goal in mind, a destination in mind.
It’s not haphazard or even self-defined.
There is a finish line that when crossed, will include the words “well done good and faithful servant.”
It’s not a physical prize, but a spiritual one, both present and eternal.
God is both with us and preparing a place for us.
It’s a prize promised to those who set their intention AND direction on Jesus.
Your past does not cancel the promise you’ve been given in Jesus.
Life’s interruptions do not cancel the promise we’ve been given in Jesus.
We forget what’s behind, letting God redeem it. We live today with eyes forward.
Some of you have been stuck in the same cycle for years, and this year has only made it worse.
As we look forward to a new year, set your intention and your path towards the goal set before you.
In the midst of life’s interruptions, let’s set the directions we’re headed to match our intentions of a Christ-centered life.
Does it matter what’s ahead of us? Yes!
But what matters more is who is going ahead of us.
Here’s the key we hold onto.
Whatever the future holds, we keep pressing towards the One who holds our future.
Whatever the future holds, we keep pressing towards the One who holds our future.
Whatever 2021 has in store, we keep pressing towards the One who holds our future.
You see, the desire to get Christmas right didn’t end on Christmas day, because our desire was not just to get a day right.
Our desire, our hope, is to get the life that Christ brings to us through his birth, the life he gives to us through his death, the life that he gives to us in a relationship with him, right.
A Christ-centered life.
Blue Oaks Church