We continued to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Gateway Church in Austin.
No matter how far from God you feel and regardless of what you’ve done, there’s room for you.
Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.
Big Idea: No matter how far from God you feel and regardless of what you’ve done, there’s room for you.
For a moment, let’s be really honest. How many of you are enjoying the Christmas season? You’ve got your tree up. You’re watching Christmas movies. You’ve bought all the presents. You were excited when you saw Christmas lights were for sale the day after Halloween!
How many of you are not enjoying the Christmas season? You aren’t a Scrooge, but you just don’t get into all the decorations or the cultural elements of the season. Or maybe you cannot believe it is already 8 days before Christmas. Maybe you don’t have plans like it seems everyone else does. Maybe you’ve lost someone so this Christmas won’t be the same.
Whether you are excited or annoyed by the month of December, I want to invite you into the actual story. For now, put to the side what we think about Christmas in America or Christmas where you grew up. Forget about the food, the family, and the football.
As we read from the Christmas story, I want you to imagine you are living in the time before the first Christmas. You are not Jewish and you aren’t in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. Instead you live to the East. You believe in God, and you are wanting Him to be more a part of your story.
With that in mind, let’s read from Matthew 2.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 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. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a rulerwho will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. – Matthew 2:1-12:
I think there are 4 things we can apply to our lives today from this passage.
The story of the Magi teaches us that all are welcome into God’s story, that the journey of following God is worth it, that we should bring God our best, and that we should make room for others.
Let’s look at each of these.
First, All are welcome into God’s story.
The story of the Magi reminds us that no one is too far from God; that all are welcome.
More than likely, the Magi were Babylonian astrologers, followers of Zoroastrian theology – historically they would have been enemies of Israel.
It’s important to remember that the story of God in the Scriptures is the story of a God who created humanity in His own image – every single person on the planet who is alive, who ever lived, or who will ever live was created in the image of God.
And in the Scriptures we discover His plan all along includes people from every people, tongue, tribe and nation. We see this in the first few pages of the Bible.
Genesis 12:1-3 says:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
We see in the last few pages of the Bible that God’s redemptive plan includes everyone and will be fulfilled.
John writes of a vision he saw at the end of all time in Revelation 7:9
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
From the beginning to the end of the story is a God who loves all and offers life to all – regardless of their background.
One of my favorite passages that comes in the early days of the church includes Paul’s message to the philosophers and scholars of Greece in Acts 17. He says something remarkable:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ – Acts 17
There at a place called Mars Hill, Paul was inviting Greeks to follow the Jewish Messiah, and he explains that God puts each of us at the exact time in history and place on this planet that gives us the best opportunity to find Him!
In spite of all the challenges you may have with your biological family or with the country in which you were born or the era in which you live, one day you will discover that all of those things actually happened so that you might turn to God and find that He is there waiting for you.
He created you for a relationship with Him – a relationship He will not force, but one we can choose.
Do you keep an open heart and an open mind to the things of God?
- Some of us have come to closure too soon on our understanding of God and what He wants to do in our lives and through our lives.
- Some of you have followed God for years, and may even consider yourself mature in your faith. Even for you, I believe that God has more for you!
- Some of you are new to faith, He has more for you!
- Some of you are exploring faith, He wants you to know Him and have a relationship with Him.
Don’t come to closure too soon on who you think God is and what you think He wants to transform in you or do through you!
In a book called Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath, these two very smart professors and authors argue that humans are hampered by four “enemies” of decision-making rooted in our unconscious behavior. One of them is called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias means rather than having an open mind, we make a decision and then look for proof that the decision we already have made was the right one. We don’t really look for evidence on which decision would be best. Pros and Cons lists are written to make sure what we want to do has more pros and what we don’t want to do has more cons. We come to closure way too soon in our decision-making and in life.
A friend of mine contacted me and wanted to learn how to hear God’s voice. As we caught up on each other’s lives, he told me about a moment when he woke up and decided to just let go of something he had been trying to make happen that seemed to be going nowhere. I asked him how he knew to just “let go.” He paused and answered. “I just knew God wanted me to ‘let go.'” Then he said something incredibly profound: “I guess it’s not that God isn’t speaking to me. I guess He’s not saying what I want to hear.”
All of us need to be willing to hear the fresh message God has for us, no matter where we may be in our spiritual journey.
What are your dreams and hopes for your future? Are these your own dreams or are these dreams God has for you? Are these selfish dreams or selfless dreams?
To experience the life God created us to experience, to become who we were created to be, we need to entrust all of our hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, regrets along with our past, present, and future to God. Let go of your dreams so God can replace them with His dreams for your life – which are far more beautiful than what you could ever imagine!
We can learn to discern God’s voice in our lives when we develop a posture of receptivity.
As you grow closer to God, you will realize how much further you have to go! You will notice growth when you look backwards at your life. Slowly but surely, when you will follow Jesus you will become more like Jesus.
To be like Jesus means being willing to include others in your life with whom you disagree, those from a different background, those who make different moral choices, those from a different socioeconomic status, those you may not normally like, those who may have offended you or hurt you.
(By the way, I am not talking about having unhealthy boundaries with someone who has abused you. If this is you and you need help, please let us know).
If you follow Jesus- we should never exclude anyone from sharing in God’s love.
Second, Pursuing God and following God are worth it.
The Magi teach us that the journey of following God is worth it. They traveled hundreds of miles to a foreign land. They had to inquire about a different culture, religion, and prophecies. Eventually, they found Jesus
So many of us stop when things get hard. We hit a bump in our spiritual journey and want to turn back or just stop in our tracks.
But when we come to encounter Jesus, we find that He is worth it. He’s worth the time, energy, and sacrifice.
This year I have really been wanting to connect with God in new ways. My go to over the years has been reading the Bible. I wanted to continue with that but become more faithful in prayer, fasting, and in a practice called solitude.
Here’s a couple of helpful quotes on this idea:
“Without solitude it is impossible to have a spiritual life.”–Henri Nouwen
So what is solitude?
Ruth Haley Barton writes:
“The invitation to solitude and silence… is an invitation to enter more deeply into the intimacy of relationship with the One who waits just outside the noise and busyness of our lives….”– Ruth Haley Barton
Isn’t that a powerful thought? Ever wonder why God seems to be so quiet? It’s not that He is too quiet, it’s that we are not removing the noise so we can hear Him! Too many of us have to always have music going or the TV on or we are looking at screens or with people hour after hour, day after day.
God is waiting for us just outside the noise and busyness of our lives. She says more:
“[Solitude] is an invitation to communication and communion with the One who is always present even when our awareness has been dulled by distraction. It is an invitation to the adventure of spiritual transformation in the deepest places of our being, an adventure that will result in greater freedom and authenticity and surrender to God than we have yet experienced.”– Ruth Haley Barton
In this Christmas season, I believe God wants to reveal more of Himself to you, but you have to remove the distractions.
James whose Mom was Mary so he was the half brother of Jesus resisted seeing his older brother as the Messiah. (Could you imagine being Jesus’ younger brother? I am sure it was tempting for Mary to say to her younger kids: “Why can’t you be more like your big brother Jesus?”) James completely surrendered his life to God and believed when He saw Jesus crucified and then alive – risen from the dead.
James writes to believers struggling to live out their faith the following:
“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” – James 4:7-10 NCV
You will find God when you truly seek Him. It just may not be the way you think.
It may be a thought, a whisper, or something far more miraculous.
He also speaks with a still, small voice” and check this out the Scriptures say after we say “yes” to following Jesus then “we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Cor. 2:16
The more familiar we are with the Word of God, the more we know God’s character, and the kinds of things God would whisper to us.
Consider the lengths the Magi went to find Jesus!
And we struggle to come to church on Sunday if it’s a bit too cold or a bit too hot or even when it’s a bit too nice outside!
God is waiting for you on the other side of the noise and busyness!
- Spending time with God on your own.
- Coming on Sunday.
- Joining a group.
- Serving others with others.
The more we surrender our lives to Him, the more we will experience His peace and presence and the more He will bring more of heaven to our part of the world!
But spiritual growth takes effort!
In our first small group at Gateway, we had some amazing people in our group, many of whom are still very involved in our life today. At the beginning of the group I encouraged everyone to pray and come up with spiritual goals for the next season which we then emailed to ourselves 3 months later through www.futureme.org.
FutureMe.org allows you to email yourself at a certain date in the future. It is quite mind-trippy to receive an email from your younger self! Three months later most of us had forgotten we had even gone through this exercise, but a filmmaker in our group named Scott brought his email. He printed it out because he was so excited about all that had come to pass during our group. With genuine excitement Scott showed us how everything on his list had happened plus amazing things he hadn’t even considered!
At the peak of his excitement, a great friend of ours in the group said: “Well, nothing on my list happened.” Unsure of how to respond in that moment, we all sat in silence. Momentum had been lost until she said one of the most insightful things ever shared in our group, and I have been quoting her ever since.. She then said: “the difference is that you worked hard to make so much progress, and I didn’t.”
Pursuing Jesus is worth the effort.
Third, God deserves our best.
The Magi teach us to bring God our best
We sing 3 kings because Scripture mentions 3 types of gifts, but this was more than likely a large caravan. And they would have lavished gifts on this impoverished young family.
When we encounter Jesus for who He really is we see that He is worthy of our absolute best. We can come to God withholding nothing, because He withheld nothing from us. He came for us.
What would you give to experience peace? What would you be willing to do in order to experience forgiveness? What would you be willing to surrender to have wisdom in navigating the highs and lows of life?
God offers us all of that and so much more, but as we read James, the half brother of Jesus wrote: we have to turn to God which means turning away from the darkness.
We spend so much money celebrating the birth of Jesus by giving presents to the people we love, and in many ways that’s a really sweet concept. I mean would any of us say: “For my birthday I don’t want anything. I just want you to be generous and buy presents for others!” Some of us would, but most of us want to be the center of the celebration.
God is not wanting us to give Him a present. It’s far more than that! He wants us to surrender our lives to Him. He’s not asking us to give anything less than He gave us, and that’s everything!
You see, we celebrate the baby Jesus because he grew up and loved the outcasts, taught with authority, healed the sick, and ultimately gave His life – dying on the cross for the sins of humanity.
But death could not keep Him, He rose from the dead! And Jesus is alive! His Spirit comes to live within those who surrender their lives to Him.
Jesus is inviting us to follow Him – not just once on a Sunday when you got baptized. He’s inviting us to follow Him fully – every day! And when we do we are amazed at how God can work in and through our lives.
Many of you have chosen to trust Jesus and we are learning to trust God in every area of our lives. That’s how we as a church have done so much good over the years!
God’s Kingdom grows through willing people, not force or coercion.
God wants us to love Him more than we love anything or anyone else.
Now it’s counter intuitive because if you love God more than anyone else, you actually become a better person. You treat everyone in your life better than you would without His help.
God invites us to be free from the love of other things that can be distracting and destructive.
One of the hardest is trusting God with our finances. God challenges us to trust him.
I love you guys, and I want you to experience God’s Abundance in your life. I get a salary fixed by our Board of Directors. And Yet Deborah and I have always given 10% to whatever local church we’ve been part of, even before Gateway. And God has always been amazingly faithful—so much so, I realized, I really believe Jesus when He says: “the more you give, the more God will entrust back to you—in the measure you give will it be given to you.” – Luke 6:38
Someone in my life group pointed out to me that rather than thinking how 10% of our 100% seems like so much money, we should consider that God is only asking us to give 10% and we get to keep 90%!
Some of you have discovered the joy of giving more than 10% to God through the local church and through other ministries and non-profits.
Here’s the funny thing: we don’t give to God through the local church so we will be blessed with more. Giving often means living on less.
On this giving Sunday, we give out of gratitude for all God has done for us. We give because we trust Him.
Jesus is worth far more than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He is worth giving our entire lives!
Fourth, We can make room for others.
Who in your life do you need to make room for?
Christmas can be a hard time for some. Perhaps there are folks in your small group without plans that would enjoy dinner with your family. Perhaps there are folks at work that would love to enjoy coming over for a game night with your friends.
Let me ask you a harder question: Who in your life do you think is too far gone? Who in your life is difficult to love? Who in your life is usually excluded around the holidays or who have you recently had a falling out with?
Almost every family in America has experienced some sort of division over the last few years. People who used to be invited have been uninvited or they can come but not everyone talks to them.
Know that Jesus came for them, just as He came for you. And maybe He wants to use you to reach them.
Jesus turns enemies into family.
One of the eyewitnesses and friends of Jesus wrote:
He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:11-12
The apostle Paul who originally persecuted followers of Jesus until he had a spiritual encounter with Jesus wrote:
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. – Romans 5:6-11- 6
The Magi searched for Jesus and found Him.
From them we learn that all are welcome into God’s story, that the journey of following God is worth it, that we should bring God our best, and that we should make room for others.
What do you sense God is wanting you to do today?
Consider your next step as we pray together.
Pray for God to speak to hearts and that what He has put on our hearts, we will have the courage to actually do it.