The Polar Express Comes to Pitman! (12/20/15)

Posted by on Dec 26, 2015 in Sermons | 0 comments

Each Christmas is a reminder that God beacons us- woos us- to “Get on Board!”  He constantly offers us a free ticket; to trust fully in Him and to go along on the “ride” that He has intended for us to take.  But like the kids in the movie Polar Express, we have to choose to leave the comfort of our home and Get Aboard to parts unknown.

Pastor Jim’s sermon on December 20 reminded us of the wonder and joy of this challenge.

Click the below “Play” button and scroll down to follow along and get on board…

 

Our scripture reading was Isaiah 6:1 and John 3:16-7.  Familiar verses, but powerful verses…

Scripture

Isaiah  6:1

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.

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John 3:16-17

16  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

NKJV 

Secular Traditions or Sacred Bridges?

How do we connect to God?  Certainly God has given us His Word, prayer, and inspired hymns… but what about the secular traditions of the world? Can we use any of these to connect us with God? Here are but two examples…

Some have derisively posed the question”  Who do you follow?  JC or SC?”  But can we use “SC” to help us follow “JC”?

History clearly shows that Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is a Christian tradition.  Saint Nicholas is one of the most popular saints in the Greek and Latin churches.  While there isn’t historical documentation, it is believed that he was probably the bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) sometime in the 300s.

Supposedly, Nicholas was born to a wealthy family and had a considerable inheritance.  But he didn’t want to keep any of it.  In the most famous story about his life, he threw bags of gold through the windows of three girls about to be forced into prostitution.  (from an article by Ted Olsen).

The tradition is about someone who gave up his wealth; wealth that belonged to him- and gave it away.  Can we use this story to help point us to Jesus (who laid aside the “wealth” of his glory in heaven to become a lowly human like us)?

There is the story of flying reindeer, including one who sines a light in the darkness clearing a path through the fog so that blessings can flow down from up above in the North.

Can we use this to help point us to Jesus (who came to be The Light of the World)???

There are many other traditions which regrettably, many in Christendom have declared “secular.”  But, could it be that rather than dismiss these traditions out of hand, we can learn more about our faith through these stories and traditions?

 

Secular Stories or Parables?

Matthew 13:34-35 tells us:

Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.

This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”

The Hebrews, and we, depend on an oral tradition that points us to the truths about God and leads us into worship.  We learn from stories .  Here’s what Psalm 78:1-3 says about this:

O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying,

for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—

stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us.

We can look at stories such as Santa Clause and Reindeer as parables which can remind us of God and draw us closer to Him.

The movie “The Polar Express” could be such a parable.  Resist the urge to scoff and totally dismiss this movie as secular entertainment, but instead look for the Biblical truths that it contains.

All Aboard!Train HO engine _DSC02384

The train comes unexpectedly (like the Bridegroom in Matthew 25).  The ticket is free (like salvation).  You’re constantly being invited to board (“Come unto me…”).

This movie has been applauded by Christian leaders such as James Dobson and Max Lucado. “The Polar Express” is far more than an  enchanting tale  about a train ride to the North Pole. It’s a story about faith; faith lost, faith reawakened, faith renewed, a faith which continues to draw us to someone outside of our selves… to Someone bigger than we are.

The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, was asked about all the biblical parallels in the movie.  The director winked and said:

“Nothing in a movie this big ends up in the script by accident.”

Journey of Faith Parable

The Polar Express is a parable about the journey of faith. Here are some of the truths that this movie helps us visualize as we take our “journey”…

The story begins with the main character (“Hero Boy”) lying awake in bed on  Christmas Eve.  Through the voice of Tom Hanks, the boy recounts his experience:  “On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed… I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear. The ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.”

Just as Hero Boy had a childlike curiosity, we need to search for God with awe and wonder.  We need to keep the sense of “How Can This Be” (Mary’s response to the angel).  We need to strain to hear the bells unless they become drowned out by the noise of distractions, responsibilities, even the things of self importance.  Can we still hear “Santa’s Bells”?  Are we in awe of a God who could become a man and die on a cross for us?

The boy falls asleep and is awakened by the rumblings of a train in the street.  It is the Polar Express.  He hears the faraway cry, “All Aboard!”  Dumbfounded, he slowly approaches the inviting figure.  The conductor blurts out, “Well?  Are you coming?”  Drawing close he adds, “Sounds to me this is your crucial year.  If I were you, I would think about climbing onboard.”  When Hero Boy hesitates, the conductor replies, “Suit yourself,” and the train begins to roll away.

How About You?  Is this s crucial year for you in matters of faith?  As the Gospel Express of Christ rides through Pitman this morning, will you finally climb on board, or will you risk your eternal soul by letting it ride on without you?

At the last minute the boy decided to climb on board the train.  In front of him is a young boy named “Know It All” who immediately accosts him…

“Hey!  Hey, you.  Yeah, you!  Do you know what kind of train this is?  Do you? From across the aisle the girl responds,”It’s a magic train.  We’re going to the North Pole.” 

Know It All retorts, “Actually it’s a Baldwin 2-8-4 S3 class steam locomotive built in 1931 at the Baldwin Locomotive Works.”

Don’t you just love Know It Alls?  They say religion is about personal likes, create a god in your own image.  You don’t need God because you can handle every situation in life all by yourself.  Regardless of what the Bible says, you know better…

But there’s no baggage on this train!  We don’t need to create anything; we make it too complicated.  Jesus simplified things when He He boiled it all down to “Believe in Me”…

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

John 6:28-29

We can’t bring anything of our own creation on to the train.  We don’t have to say the right thing or know the right thing.  Nothing we can do will make God love us any more or any less.  We can’t buy our own ticket.  It’s already paid for.

The train stops again to pick up a sad little boy (“Lonely Boy”) standing in front of a run down house.  Initially he refuses to get onboard.  As the train speeds away, he begins to run after the train.  Seeing that there is no possible way he will catch up, Hero Boy hits the emergency break.  Lonely Boy enters, but sits alone in the last car of the train.

As God’s Gospel Train rides through every country, city, town and hamlet around the globe, there are people searching and trying to get on board.  But they need assistance.

Sometimes that involves risk. Hero Boy could have been thrown off the train for pulling the emergency break.

Jesus gave His All to get us on the “Gospel Train.” And he’s instructed and empowered His people to do the same thing; help people get on the train, even if it means taking risks.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matt 28:19-20

They make it to the North Pole and eventually their car detaches from the train and begins to slide down a hill.  The children find themselves in a train depot deep within the town.  Hero Girl is able to guide them out of the depths of the town by following the sound of a sleigh bell.  At first, she is the only one who can hear the sound.  Eventually,  Lonely Boy begins to hear it.  Hero Boy remains frustrated, “I  don’t hear anything.”

Eventually they do arrive to the center of town, and everyone is there, surrounded in the lights.  But Hero Boy still can’t hear the bells.  He’s at a loss.  It’s much like the non-believing world who cannot “hear” or “see” the movement of God in the world.

  • In Mark 9:7-9 God speaks from Heaven and true believers heard God’s voice, but others thought it was only thunder.
  • In Revelation 2:7, 11, and many other places, Jesus says “He who has an ear, let him hear…”

The flying reindeer arrive and Hero Girl exclaims, “Aren’t those bells the most beautiful sound?”  But Hero Boy can’t hear them.  Sounds a lot like what happened 2000 years ago when God through the angels were ringing the bells that all of heaven heard.  But, on earth, only Mary, Joseph, and a few believing shepherds heard the sound.

 

The characters and places and things throughout this movie also symbolize elements of our faith journey….

The conductor represents pastors and parishioners alike who invite others to “get on board!”
The tracks are the scriptures, and God given teachings of the Old and New Testaments which keep us in line and allow us to stay “on track” by remaining in God’s will.
The ghost hobo on the top of the train represents the doubts that haunt and tempt each of us on this journey.  The temptations to sin,  to walk away from the faith, to compromise the faith, to trust self rather than God.

The North Pole is the Celestial City spoken of in Revelation 21-22. Heaven is that wonderful place where every child of God will joyously be with God and His Messiah… represented by Santa.

 

Faith Lessons from the Polar Express

The symbols and similarities between elements of this movie and our faith journey are unmistakable.  There are three lessons that we can draw from this film…

 

1:  Seeing is Believing and Believing is Seeing…

Hero Boy is torn between two truths:  “Seeing is Believing”  and “Believing is Seeing.”

Both are true.  The reality of the train, the invitation of the conductor, and the shared experiences of the children all witness to the reality of Santa.  However, this evidence is not enough to convince Hero Boy.  Though it is true that seeing is believing- and Hero Boy is able to see some things that encourage him- it is also true that Believing is Seeing.  In order for Hero Boy to fully share in the journey he must have faith.  All the evidence in the world is not enough without this.

According to the Bible, God wants the Gospel Train to be filled as much as possible!

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
…This is good, and pleases God our Savior,  who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.

The Christian church is not in existence for itself.  Jesus did not come into the world for Christians.  In fact, Jesus said (in Luke 19:10) that He came “to seek and save those who are lost.”  Christmas is about God coming to earth to share the Good News that a Savior has been born.  That God loves us.

Invite ’em,  don’t fight ’em!

God calls us to “Stand in the Gap” between Himself and those who don’t know Him.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land.
I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.”

Ezekiel 22:30

We should be a community of travelers who invites others to share our journey, even if (at present) they don’t share our faith.  We invite people to belong before they believe.  Seeing is believing.  We invite others to join us; to come along, to taste and see, to experience mystery and beauty with the hope that faith may awaken.  We invite them to “see in order to believe” that they might “believe in order to see.”

 

 

2: The Persuasive Power of Wonder

The Polar Express challenges us all- both young and old- to never lose our sense of awe, wonder and fascination.  For children, these things come naturally.  However, these wonderful gifts are lost unless we nurture and develop them.

Children are not born secularists, nihilists, or atheists.  These perspectives are hammered in through the loss of innocence, the influences of others throughout the culture in which they live, and the circumstances of life.  In spite of these things, we don not have to lose our faith.  We can recapture and renew our sense of wonder and awe.

Jesus said (Mark 10:15)…   I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

In our world it’s easy to become cynical, jaded, hopeless, and despairing.   The loss of awe and wonder is tragic. One important function of liturgy, praise and worship- the rituals of celebration which are at the heart of our corporate expression of faith- is to continually remind and renew our sense of our mysterious, transcendent, ever present, wonder-filled  God.

How many times in scripture do we read that people were filled with “wonder” or “awe” or were “amazed”?

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,  to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”  Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  (Luke 1:26-29)

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Then he (Jesus) went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.  (Luke 2:51)

But after he had considered this (divorcing Mary), an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  (Matt 1:20-21)

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“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  (Mark 6:2-3)

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  (Luke 2:13-15)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  (Matthew 2:1-2)
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  (Luke 2:9-10)

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  (Luke 2:13-14)

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For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.  (Matt 13:16)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation,  which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. (Luke 2:25-33)

There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,  and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.

She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

The music is real.   The beautiful sound of the sleighbell is always ringing for those with ears to hear.  Growing old does not have to result in losing faith.  Instead, like Hero Boy, may we be able to say, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

 

3: The Overwhelming Joy which Comes from the Inside

The announcement of the angels which began as one solitary angel erupted into an explosion of singing, with strobe lights filling the countryside!  The announcement was, in a very real sense, a request to “Strike up the Band!”

Strike Up the Band!  What gets you excited about Christmas?  Many of us think of the things under the tree.  But “Things” break down.   “Things” quickly loose their appeal.  Can you even remember all of the “Things” that were under your tree last year?

Can you celebrate the true meaning of Christmas?  Have  you given Christ your whole heart?  Do you know the deep, intimate, peace of God?  Can you sing and praise and glorify His name? These joys come from the inside… when our “insides” are trained through the constant search, wonder, and praise for God which takes place throughout the dates that aren’t December 25.

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.   (Matt 6:19-21)

Christmas Eve15 Candle Closeup _IMG_2882The Christmas story tells us that there’s no other place to “put your treasures.”  Salvation is in no one else: “For there is no Name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).

When this treasure drives the joy that’s in your heart, you’ll be able to join with the multitudes in heaven as they sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo.

 

Just Get on Board!

Tom Hanks’ character in the movie makes a statement which begs a response:

One thing about trains; it doesn’t matter where they are going.

What matters is deciding to get on.”

Will you get on board the Gospel Express this Christmas?  God calls us to Him and invites us to follow Him.  We all have a natural inclination to ask where and why.  In many respects, we don’t want to give up the control of our lives.  sunflower-402249__180

Yet, we need to remember… we are not following some arbitrary unfeeling deity.  We are following the One who loves us.  We are responding to the One who promises to lead us through our entire lives all the way through the door of eternity in relationship with Him.

All we have to do is to reach out to Him and He will always welcome us.

Have YOU given Jesus your whole heart?

 


 Quiz Time!

As you reflect on what you’ve just heard/read, give this quiz a try.  If you don’t understand an answer (or if you disagree with the “correct” answer, post a comment)…

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