(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
The third candle of Advent is the candle of joy. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” When the Old Testament spoke of joy, it meant even more than that. For the psalmists, joy was a spiritual matter of the heart, filling a person from the inside out and rising above earthly circumstances. For the Israelites who first sang Psalm 100 (and for us) God’s presence and goodness are the ultimate source of joy.
Zechariah doubted the angel’s word that he and Elizabeth would have a son (Luke 1:5-17). But it all came true. When Zechariah wrote that they would name the baby John, as the angel instructed, he was able to speak again. Luke said “everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened”—today we’d say there was “a lot of buzz” about John’s birth. The unusual birth and naming had people asking, “What then will this child be?”
We saw last week that Mary’s Magnificat centered, not on her personal hopes or wishes, but on what God was doing through the child she would bear. Zechariah’s song struck a similar note. He first praised God, not for his own son, but for the child Mary would bear. God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house….He has brought salvation…he has shown mercy,” Zechariah sang.
Mary’s pregnancy altered her fiancé Joseph’s life as well as her own. “Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, [Joseph] decided to call off their engagement quietly.” But in God’s great timing, “as he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream…,” explained Mary’s pregnancy and repeated that the baby’s name would be Jesus (“God saves”). The child would fulfill Isaiah 7:14’s words about a sign that meant Emmanuel—“God with us.”
When he had grown up, John boldly preached, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” God worked through his preaching in powerful ways, and led many Israelites to baptism as a sign of turning around spiritually. Yet John always kept a clear sense of this role as forerunner to Jesus. Matthew wrote that he baptized Jesus, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, only after humbly saying, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” (cf. also John 1:19-30).
Mary also rejoiced that her child would fulfill God’s promise to bring justice to an unjust world. Her song (which echoed, in many ways, the song Samuel’s mother sang in 1 Samuel 2:1-10) said that, in Jesus, God would care for the lowly, hungry and oppressed. The coming of the eternal king sent by God would turn upside-down many of the human values that had always tended to rule the world.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Heavenly Father, we ask you to fill us with the joy that doesn’t depend on our circumstances, with your love and mercy that displaces any form of condemnation. Change our lives and our hearts so that, like John, we might prepare the way for Jesus in the lives of others. Guide our steps and give our lives meaning and purpose beyond our selfishness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Will the terrible tragedy in Connecticut spoil the spirit of Christmas for most Americans? How might it highlight the need all of us have to celebrate the birth of a savior? How does Christ offer hope in the light of such a tragedy?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Psalm 100:1-5. The psalmist used the word “joy” to describe something more than simple happiness. It meant spiritual delight over the unshakeable belief that God is good. Do you ever feel that kind of spiritual joy? What causes those feelings in you? Do you trust that God is ultimately in charge of…well…everything? Why is trust in God important?
Read Luke 1:57-66. To Hebrews of Jesus’ time, names meant something. They often spoke what the parents hoped their children would be. Zechariah meant “God remembers,” but John meant “God is gracious.” Why would John be a better name, considering John’s ultimate message and mission? Has your name affected your life in any way? What else has subtly affected your life? Both Zechariah and John willingly obeyed God’s call for John’s life. How can we become more obedient when we feel God’s tug on our lives?
Read Luke 1:67-75. Like Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s song praised God, not only for the birth of his son, but for the salvation God was bringing into the world. Do you think most Christians have fully grasped the meaning and magnitude of the salvation Christ brings us? If we did, would we ever stop praising and thanking God? Would we be more likely to completely and thoroughly surrender our whole life to God?
Read Luke 1:76-80. How certain do you think Zechariah was in singing these statements? How did Zechariah know all of this? What gave him the confidence to make such powerful statements about the future life of his son and the future of the world? What could make you confident enough to make similarly profound statements? What would skeptics have said to Zechariah about these words? What would it take for you to have the confidence Zechariah must have had?
Read Matthew 3:1-17. What appeals to you about this story? What does “A voice of one calling in the wilderness” mean to you? Why did Jesus insist that John baptize him? The word “repent” does not mean simply ‘to be sorry about’ or ‘to regret,’ but rather means to change both attitude (or heart) and conduct. In what areas of your life has God changed your conduct? Jesus ultimately showed compassion and mercy to people seen as “sinners.” Do you think some people were disappointed that Christ wasn’t “tougher” in his approach? Would you have been?
Read Luke 7:18-30. While John languished in prison, Jesus praised him as even “more than a prophet.” What did Jesus mean when he said this? Why did Jesus say, “…yet whoever is least in God’s kingdom is greater than he”? Was John willing to forego praise and ego to serve his godly purpose? Is that easy for most of us? What kinds of things do we need to do to “tune ourselves up” to do God’s work?
From last week: Did you listen to a Christian music radio station (like 88.5 or 97.3 in Kansas City) for music that would soften your heart and strengthen your faith? Did you listen along with other Christians to see if your life, attitudes and emotions might be better served? If so, what was your experience like?
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon of December 16, 2012:
We do play a part in defeating evil. We defeat evil by the power of grace, mercy and love. Adam Lanza’s actions will not destroy Newtown, Connecticut. They will leave a permanent scar, but the community will heal—and how will it heal? By the power of love. Evil seems never to learn that every act of evil is overwhelmed by a thousand acts of good. The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School produced a response of mercy, compassion and kindness in millions of Americans.
In July 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Albany, Georgia for holding a prayer service outside City Hall. He spent 15 days in prison. During that time he finished writing several sermons which became what is one of his greatest books, Strength to Love. Writing from a jail cell, having been beaten, threatened, and stabbed he wrote these words about how evil is defeated:
“Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that… hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.”
Each day we choose good over evil. In the face of horrible evil we care for those wounded by evil, we bind up their wounds, and then we find ourselves more determined in this epic battle.
And that leads me back to the first songs of Christmas, and Zechariah’s song—the Benedictus.
We have an image of what Christmas is about. It isn’t so much shaped by the biblical accounts of Christmas as it is by Andy Williams, Julie Andrews and Bing Crosby. Andy Williams sang, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year/With the kids jingle belling/And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”/It’s the most wonderful time of the year/It’s the hap-happiest season of all/With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings/When friends come to call/It’s the hap- happiest season of all.”
We combine that in our heads with images like Norman Rockwell’s, which evoke the fantasy Christmas we imagine. That image makes the reality of Christmas when we’re walking in darkness even more painful. It can make Christmas feel like a cruel joke….
When the first Christmas happened the Romans were an occupying power in Palestine. Their troops stationed across the land. Their puppet king, Herod the Great, built magnificent buildings to glorify himself, and he did so by taxing and forced labor. Shortly after Jesus was born Herod slaughtered all the children under two years old in and around Bethlehem. A short time later when Herod died, the people of Sephoris revolted. The Romans destroyed the city, enslaved 35,000 people or drove them from their homes, and took 2,000 of them to Jerusalem to be crucified as an example to the Jews of what Rome did to rebels.
Those were the times in which Zechariah lived, and in which Jesus was born. And Zachariah prophesied about the meaning of Mary’s son, whose birth we mark at Christmas. Jesus would be born to save us, but not in the way many hoped. He would not take away the freedom to choose evil. Instead, by his life, death and resurrection, he would show us the way, and enlist his followers to defeat darkness by the power of grace, mercy and love. Listen to how Zechariah described Christmas—the birth of Christ:
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Listen carefully. Into a world of cruelty, oppression, violence and darkness Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would come. He wouldn’t remove the darkness, but would shine in the midst of it. He would give light and hope to us. He would show us how to defeat evil. He would give himself to save us from ourselves and from our sin. He would guide us in the way of peace.
Tom Are, the pastor of Village Presbyterian Church, is a friend of mine. He told a story in worship I want to share with you.
Ruth worshipped in the first church Tom served in Charleston, SC. She was a grandmother type. Everyone loved to talk with Ruth; she was one of those people who just made you feel better. She could lift your spirits. She was always a bit of sunshine.
After observing her for some time, Tom asked Ruth to tell him her story. She was married to Ryan who had a passion for sailing. He taught their three boys to sail and they all knew their way around a boat by the time they were in middle school. Their middle son, Phillip, had just graduated from college and he and some buddies headed out to sea. Ruth said the storm came out of nowhere. Took them four days to find the boat. They never did find the boys.
Tom asked, “Ruth you are so happy now. How did you ever deal with this terrible loss?” She just smiled and said, “Tom, mothers don’t get over that…When I was in the valley of the shadow I learned something. Everyday the sadness is waiting. I didn’t know if it will come with the coffee or the paper or if it would speak to me in the grocery or penetrate my dreams. But everyday I prayed, ‘God, don’t let the sadness win.’ It took me a long time but I began to see that we all have sadness.
Everyone knows the dark night of the soul; everyone knows heartbreak. I know what that is like. And God has helped me speak a little happiness into this world. It’s my ministry. And I still pray, ‘God don’t let the sadness win…Let me push back the sadness not only in my life but in the lives of everyone I meet.’” She said, “Tom, I’m not a bright woman. I’m not particularly talented. But I know how to smile. And I can often bring one out of someone else. I know it’s not much, but it’s my ministry.”
We’ve walked through a very dark place this week. We’ve seen what darkness looks like when it is evil. We also know, as Ruth did, the darkness of overwhelming sadness and despair. Old Zechariah was right when he said Christmas is about the breaking dawn that gives light in our darkness, even in the shadow of death. If we follow that light, it will lead us in the path to peace. Ruth was right: we choose daily to live in that light and to shine that light for others. That’s the promise and invitation to us today. Let us choose the light, to walk in the light, to live by the light, to overcome darkness by light.
Characteristics of Christian Joy
What does a joyful person look like? How do you distinguish a joyful person from a happy person, or a giddy person, or a foolish person? You can be happy your team won, you can be giddy about a great opportunity and you can act happy under the influence of some substance. So, what is it that makes joy different from these things?
Joy is unaffected by circumstances. It is a state of mind, an orientation of the heart. Joy is deep. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope. In the opening words of Philippians, following the salutation Paul writes, I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. . . It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (Philippians 1:3-5, 7-8)
Paul tells the Philippians that he has been praying for them. But he doesn’t just pray, he prays with joy. And his joy comes “because of your partnership in the gospel.” Paul’s joy is a shared joy….
Think about a great experience you’ve had. Perhaps it was the birth of a child. Maybe it was a great buck you got during hunting season. Maybe it was a great honor paid to you or a life-changing insight. Whatever the experience, we would venture to say that it was a joy that was made complete as you shared it with others. A shared joy is a deeper joy….
So what is it that Christians share? Here are three (of many) things we share. First, we share a common grace. Many things divide us. We divide over politics, ethnic issues, gender differences, and personal tastes and interests. But when we come to Christ there is a bond with others that transcends differences. That bond is God’s grace. The Bible makes it clear that we are accepted into God’s presence not because of the good we do but because of the mercy He extends. We are all on equal footing. No one gets an “edge” when it comes to grace. This is why you can go into a gathering of Christians and quickly feel a sense of belonging and oneness. You gather with other believers and before you even know them well you are sharing your heart with them. Why does it happen? It happens because of our common grace. Our personal history is irrelevant to our spiritual position.
Second, we share a common task. Jesus has called us all to do the same thing: glorify Him in our living and testify of Him to our friends and neighbors. We may disagree on gun control, abortion, the death penalty, and many other issues, but we do agree that there is only one way for people to get to Heaven. We agree that there is only one hope for modern society. And that one way and one hope is Jesus. We are people working together to get the message out. We work together in this privileged and joyful task.
Finally, we share a common hope. We all look forward to meeting and being with Jesus….this hope can give us joy in the midst of trials. This hope makes us content in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. This hope helps us find joy even as we stand at the fresh dug grave of someone we love. As we worship, we exalt our God who is actively involved in the world. He is guiding the course of history. A day is coming when He will draw all things to their appropriate and intended conclusion. We live with hope.
This week, in the midst of all the bad news in the media, look for opportunities to see the hope and joy that the Christmas season brings. Look for the light of salvation that overshadows all the darkness in the world. Make a list of everything that sends a message of love and hope and joy. Next week, share with the group whatever you experienced.