Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Old Carols in a New Light #1 - Joy to the World

Back in December, 2007 I did a little 3-week sermon series called "Old Carols in a New Light." My goal was to explore some much-loved carols and help folks see the beauty in songs that sometimes are so familiar we lose sight of the truths contained within. Little did I know that would become one of my most looked-forward-to sermon series each year! This year at Christian Challenge Worship Center I’ve chosen to take an in-depth look at just one carol for the whole series - and it's one of the most beloved and oft-recorded Christmas Carols of all time: "O Holy Night." I began with the first verse this past weekend and will cover the next two verses over the next two Sundays. But in thinking about the blog, I thought how much fun it would be to revisit some of the carols I've taught on in the past! So for the rest of this month, I’ll be doing a series here on my blog on Old Carols in a New Light, based on the Christmas sermon series I began back in 2007. It seems appropriate to begin the web series where I began the sermon series 9 years ago with the much loved carol entitled Joy To The World!

Isaac Watts, the Author of Joy to the World

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton, England, the first of 9 children, to a humble home. His parents were part of the “dissenters,” a movement that practiced non-conformity to the Church of England. As a result, his father spent some time in jail for his sermons and statements against what he viewed as faults in the Church of England.

Isaac showed a quick wit for prose. When he was a child he often got into trouble for opening his eyes during prayer time or for laughing during family devotions. He said he saw a mouse climbing the bell tower rope and wrote the following description:

“A mouse for want of better stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.”

Supposedly he got in quite a bit of trouble for this and wrote the following:

“O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.”

In the 1600s, many believed that the only songs that should be sung in church were the Psalms. They thought that God had inspired David and the writers of the Psalms and that only their words were worthy to be used in worship. This was the official position of the Anglican church. The words of the Psalms were put to tunes of the day for use in worship and there was no other option.

But the non-conformists had a different perspective. They believed that since one could pray to God spontaneously and not in the exact words of Scriptures, the same should be true for expressions of worship. Isaac Watts himself is quoted as saying that though “the ancient writers were to be imitated, they were not to be copied.” He also said that the forced tunes the Psalms were sung to often sounded like a rusty saw was being sharpened close to his ear!

Thus, many new hymns began to be written to express the truths of scriptures in rhyme and the language of the day. But some of these lacked quality. When young Isaac complained to his father about some of the songs, his father challenged him to do better. And so he did! Each week he composed a new hymn to go with the sermon, first with his father’s sermons and later with his own sermons as he became a pastor.

He wrote over 700 hymns throughout the course of his life, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.” He is called the father of modern hymns. His music is known both for its beauty and for its strong ties to biblical truth. He didn’t just write better music for Christians to use in worship, he wrote songs that shared the gospel using memorable lyrics and imagery. Here’s an excerpt from one of his lesser known hymns:

Not all the blood of beasts,
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ the Heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name,
And richer blood than they…
Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing His bleeding love.

It is said that a young Jewish girl read these words on a piece of paper that had been wrapped around a block of cheese she bought. She could not shake off the impression produced by the striking words; so she obtained a Bible and read it eagerly. She soon found in Jesus her true Messiah and Lord.

Jesus, the Message of Joy to the World

Like Watts’ other hymns, Joy to the World also has a strong evangelistic message. If you see "Joy To The World" as a just an upbeat Christmas carol, you’re missing out on the theological riches in its verses. Let’s take a look at a few things that jump out to me, starting with the first verse:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart
Prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing...

The earth has a King whether He is recognized or not (John 18:33-37). Jesus is the KING of kings. At the end of time He will be revealed as such (Rev 19:11-16). Jesus is the message of the song because He is the King.

But this verse doesn’t stop at proclaiming the coming of the King. It also appeals to men everywhere to make room for the King. Every heart only has enough room for one king. (This is why I LOVE the Spanish song, “Ven y toma el trono de mi Corazón” which translated means “Come and take the throne of my heart!”)

The third verse of the carol begins this way:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found...

Have you ever wondered why the Gospel is called “Good News”? Because the world we live in is full of bad news. The bad news is the Curse. With a capital C. Look at it: Gen 3:16-19 ...

16 To the woman He said,

“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
19 By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”

Think about it. The pain of childbirth is a result of the Curse. Struggles between husband and wife are a result of the Curse. Thorns and thistles are a result of the Curse. Hard living is a result of the Curse. Death is a result of the Curse.

And just how far is the curse found? According to Rom 8:19-22 the curse affected the whole world. The  whole of creation is longing for redemption from the curse, which is proclaimed by this wonderful carol! But please note that His blessings flow to those who have made room in their hearts. And the curse is removed in Christ (Gal 3:13) and will ultimately be removed from the whole earth (Rev 22:3).

In its final verse our carol draws to conclusion by pointing out that in Christ, grace and truth work together.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love...

We need the truth. We need to see things as they clearly are. We will never deal with the issues of our life until we see the truth. Did you know that’s why the Law was given to us? To expose our hypocrisy, our self-righteousness, our utter failure at being worthy of eternal life (Gal 3:19). It’s like the little boy who saw the emperor had no clothes. Without the truth, we all parade around like pompous Pharisees, congratulating each other on how pretty we look. And the truth is, we stink! The Law exposes our nakedness.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m so glad the song includes both truth and grace! Because sometimes, just like that line from the movie, “We can’t handle the truth!” If He only ruled by truth, I’d be dead! Truth is, I don’t deserve His love. Truth is, I’ve let Him down so many times I’ve stopped counting. Truth is, I should not be included in His family. But the song says  “truth AND grace.”

John 1:14 tells us that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” And John 1:17 goes on to say that “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The Law is important. It reveals the truth about our sinfulness, our inability to correct ourselves, the effect of the curse. But what the Law could not do, God did in Jesus (Rom 8:3). THIS is the message of “Joy To The World!”

What a great song!
I don’t think Isaac Watts intended this song to be kidnapped and held hostage to the Christmas season. This is a song of great joy the whole year long. It’s one of the finest missionary songs ever sung! It’s a song of hope, the message of joy and love replacing sin and sorrow. It is the Gospel!

Let me close by asking you a few questions: Have you experienced the message of “Joy to the World?” Has your heart prepared Him room? Is He reigning in your life? I pray that you can answer “Yes!” to every one of those questions and that you find His blessing flowing where the curse was once found. May you have JOY this Christmas season, and all year ‘round!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

2016 South Mexico Trip Wrapup

Hi all!

This is going to be a quick wrapup of last week's trip to south Mexico, with a few food pictures thrown in for good measure! In last week's blog entry, written on Thursday, Thanksgiving, I sent you Thanksgiving greetings with an update up until that point. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of some amazing tacos prepared by Pedro and Coqui's son, Oscar, who had owned and operated a taco stand for awhile when he was in college. He cooked some AMAZING "tacos de arrachera" and we also had an absolutely divine "tres leches" (three milks) cake that was so sweet and moist that my mouth is watering just thinking about it! Here are a few pics...

L-R: Faith, Joy, Norma, Hope, Oscar
Thursday was a much needed day of rest for us, especially after all the complications we had getting down. One of the really cool things that happened on Thursday is Pedro brought me a picture he had taken in 1997 when Lori and I and our three daughters had driven in my dad's van down to Coatzacoalcos to visit the church. The picture was of our three girls and his two children NINETEEN YEARS AGO! It was a precious moment of remembering our connection - and marveling at what God has done in our lives!

On Friday we visited in a few homes and then got ready for the "Volunteers Service" that night where I shared some tips on ministering in teams, and then we had a "pot luck" or "convivencia" where everyone brings enough for them and a couple more and it's all shared. Here are a few pictures of the tables...

Did I mention we ate good? All week long!!!

On Saturday we had more fellowship with families, and Hope spent a good part of the day with one family in particular, giving me time to prepare my message for Sunday. That night she spoke to the youth and there were about 50-60 in attendance. She did an amazing job of sharing from John 15 about abiding in the Vine, the word abiding in you, and abiding in God's love. Several young people made commitments for the Lord. And then they all received a great surprise! Pedro had contracted a hot-dog vendor to come serve everyone hot-dogs, and we had ANOTHER fellowship time! Hope was right at home in the middle of the youth. They fell in love with her and she fell in love with them. I'm so proud of her and the calling of God on her life!

Saturday night she actually spent the night with Dr. Cesar's family and they've invited her to come back and spend part of next summer with them. She's praying about that!

Sunday morning we had another delicious breakfast with yet another family and then it was off to church for morning worship. All the volunteers gather at 10:00AM for prayer and praise and then at 10:30 dismiss for their service position and worship started at 11:00AM. I was able to give a live greeting to Christian Challenge at 10:30, before Nick Spurgeon preached on Passionately Pursuing Christ. He did a great job!

Back at Agua Viva we had another amazing worship service! I wish you could experience their worship - it is so moving and the people give themselves over complete to worship God! Here's just a little taste...

Then it was time for me to minister. I was very humbled by Pedro's introduction as he spoke of my influence on his life and also said that in his 29 years of marriage, 27 years of being a Christian and 20+ years of being in ministry he had never heard a message on marriage like I shared on Tuesday. What's funny is I was so wiped out from the trip that I barely remember what I preached - something about Marriage Killers and Marriage Healers. So it was definitely the Lord who brought that message home! Sunday I ministered on "The Secret of Intimate Fellowship with Christ" and had a wonderful response! Many came forward to renew their walk with God and several gave their lives to Jesus. It was another powerful service, and a great way to wrap up a wonderful week! (I snapped a quick photo of the congregation as I was starting to minister - the youth and children are in other parts of the campus, leaving the auditorium for the adults.)

After service we drove back to the airport and ate lunch close by, flew to Mexico City where we spent the night and flew to Atlanta and then Alexandria, arriving around 5:00PM on Monday. I was a little concerned about potential for bad weather and the tornado watch but we had a very uneventful flight into Alexandria, and I even snagged a picture of Hope with the pilot to commemorate her first ever plane rides (six altogether counting going down and coming back).

I couldn't have asked for a better travel and ministry partner than Hope. She is such a delight, so flexible, so positive and so accommodating! I'm grateful for the opportunity to get to spend some valuable daddy-daughter time and create some precious memories. God's got great things in store for that young lady!

Pedro Chulin
Leóncio Capitán
I'm also so grateful for the connection we have with Pedro, Coqui, Leóncio, Norma, Oscar and the entire ministry team at Agua Viva in Las Choapas. Sometimes people ask about the "International" part of Christian Challenge, and they truly are fruit of our ministry in south Mexico. Please do keep them in your prayers as the economic situation in Mexico is becoming dire due to the privatization of Pemex and the falling oil prices which have combined to leave thousands without work. There has also been a significant increase of crime and violence, including kidnappings for ransom, partly from the desperate financial situation but most from the drug cartels fighting for power and territory. These are dangerous times to be ministering in south Mexico and we pray a hedge of protection over them! Here are a couple of pictures of Pedro and Leóncio, his son-in-law and associate pastor, to help you remember to pray for them!

Pedro and Coqui Chulín, some of my favorite people in the whole world!
To wrap this up, as I mentioned earlier, we ate some WONDERFUL food all week long! Each meal is prepared by a different family in the church, and they all give their BEST! Here are just a few pictures of the amazing meals that were prepared for us this past week. But be careful, it might make you want to go to Mexico with me! ;)

Mojarra frita

Huevos Motuleños

Empanadas, Garnachas and fried bananas!

Pellizcadas w/avocado!

A closeup of the Pellizcadas

Pork Birria - oh my!!!

Empanadas, Picadas and Fried Bananas!!!

Pedro and Coqui with a platter of Pellizcadas

Hope learning how to make Pellizcadas.

The finished product! (Note the pinched edges.)

The table is spread by Antonio & Family!

Huevos Motuleños, Huevos Mexicanos, Fried Bananas,
Fresh-squeezed lemonade, Mountain-grown coffee,
Homemade salsa .... it can't get much better than this!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias!

In case you're wondering, that means "Happy Thanksgiving Day" in Spanish! As I write this many of you are gathering with friends and family to celebrate one of my favorite holidays -- Thanksgiving! It hasn't fallen into the trap of commercialism or competition and remains largely about family, friends and fellowshipping around the things for which we are thankful. And I have so much to be thankful for!

I'm writing this from Las Choapas, Veracruz, Mexico where my daughter, Hope, and I visiting the "International" part of Christian Challenge International. Lori and I were privileged to be part of the missionary team that established the Agua Viva family of churches in the southern part of Mexico back in the 1980's along with Joel and Angel Dyke. What started as a small Sunday morning worship time in our living room in Coatzacoalcos has grown to become a network of churches across three Mexican states. I have the honor of personally overseeing a branch of that work that consists of 5 churches under the leadership of Pedro and Coqui Chulín, who we helped lead to the Lord and disciple.

It's been a real treat to have Hope with me on this trip. This was her first time in an airplane and she travels like a champ! We had a few significant delays, including the de-icing truck catching on fire in Alexandria which caused us to leave too late to catch our connecting flight to Mexico City. We ended up having a 10-hour layover in Atlanta, which Hope and I made the best of by leaving the airport to visit the World of Coca-Cola museum and create some memories. We then flew out of Atlanta at 7:20PM, arriving late in Mexico City - in fact it was nearly midnight by the time we collected our luggage, went through immigration and customs and finally got to our hotel. We then had to get up at 4:00AM (again!) to catch our 6:00AM Tuesday morning - only to discover that one of our suitcases didn't make the flight with us! It finally arrived on the 11:30AM flight and after collecting it we made the trip over to Las Choapas in time to eat a delicious fried fish lunch at 2:30, rest up a little bit and hit the ground running. Here are a few pictures of our travel....

The escalator from the bottom of the MARTA subway
station to the ground level is very LONG!!!

In front of the "World of Coca Cola"

Coca-cola is probably the world's most well-known product.

This Mayan pyramid was constructed as a museum on Coatzacoalcos' waterfront.

In front of the giant Mexican flag - no wind.

Hope enjoying her first ever coconut water. (I finished it for her!)
I was operating on three nights in a row of +/-4 hours sleep so I can't really tell you much about the first night, other than there were about twice as many couples as expected and the tears, hugs and kisses at the end were evidence that God was doing a healing work! I shared on Marriage Killers and Healers and watched God touch so many hearts, renewing love and giving hope. It was a great way to kick off the week! (Sorry, no pictures.)

Round-table discussion after the teaching.
Wednesday morning I went to a pastors' breakfast while Hope went with the family of Dr. Cesar and Fanny Marin to see the Revolution Day parade. (It had been postponed a couple of days due to rain.) She had a blast with this much-beloved family and I got to share a teaching on How to Deal with Insecurity in Ministry to the pastors from 4 of our 5 churches as well as a couple of other pastors from the city. Between breakfast, my teaching, and the round-table discussion the meeting lasted 4 1/2 hours! Then we left from there to have lunch with the family that had hosted Hope. (They fell in love with her and have invited her to come back and spend some time with them next summer. She's praying about it.)

After lunch we headed back to our accommodations and I was only going to take a short nap, but 1 1/2 hours later Hope was gently waking me up telling me it was time to get ready for church! We had a wonderful praise service and I shared a teaching on "God Is In Charge of Who's In Charge" based on Daniel 2:21. This was a much needed teaching as Mexico is very concerned about America's next president and some of the things he has said about them. God used this time to remind His children that He is working His plan to prepare this world for the Second Coming of Jesus, which is very soon! Four people gave their lives to the Lord last night and we also had a wonderful time of intercession for our lost loved ones. Here are a few pictures from the service that Hope took.
Worship in Agua Viva is always AWESOME!

Hope got a nice panorama shot. The children meet in a different building.

"God Is In Control of Who's In Control!"

Three of the four who gave their lives to Jesus last night!
Today is actually a day of rest for us. We had made some tentative plans but didn't have any services scheduled. I asked Pedro if we could cancel our plans and just rest, and I think he liked that idea. His son, Oscar, who once ran a taco stand while going to college, is going to make us a mess of "tacos al alambre" for lunch! So while you're eating turkey and ham, we'll be feasting on the deliciousness of authentic Mexican tacos! I think I might be getting the better end of the bargain! ;)

We still have three more meetings - Friday night I'll be speaking at a church-wide leadership training session, then Saturday Hope will speak at the youth service, and Sunday I'll share in the regular Sunday worship service. We'll fly to Mexico City Sunday evening, spend the night there and fly back to Atlanta Monday morning, arriving in Alexandria around 5:00PM Monday night. This is the toughest travel schedule I've ever had for one of these trips - normally it's only one-day down and one-day back, so having to do each direction over two days is very tiring. But it's totally worth it to be used by God! And to create some wonderful memories with my daughter, Hope! So happy Thanksgiving, y'all! We've got a lot to be thankful for!

Oh, and here are just a few more food pictures thrown in for good measure! ;)
Fried Mojarra - yummy!

Memela - thick tortilla topped w/refried beans, chinameca meat, fried bananas, avocado, shredded chicken, cheese, etc!

Fresh fruit & strawberry yogurt w/fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast!

An assortment of Mexican "antojitos" or snacks. Yummy!!!