In this Christmas sermon, Rev. Murray addresses the differences between the practice of Christianity out of duty versus out of love. He poses the question, “Are you coming to church or are you coming to Jesus?” He makes the point that “you and I are commercials for Jesus,” meaning that negative behaviors by Christians reflect badly on Jesus. It is important to be conscious of our actions and how they reflect our faith as we celebrate the Christmas season.
During his 27 years as the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray transformed a small congregation into a megachurch that brought jobs, housing and corporate investment into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, FAME Renaissance, the economic development arm of the church, brought more than $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. Rev. Murray remains a vibrant force in the Los Angeles faith community through his leadership of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
The Murray Archive preserves Rev. Murray‘s sermons and interviews in order to inspire the next generation of pastors, activists and scholars.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of the above sermon. To quote from the sermon, please provide credit to: Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Murray Archives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“Are You Really Looking for Jesus?”
December 19, 1999
Glory be to God!
Hey! Ain’t God good? All the time. Come on now, the Yuletide come once a year. Ain’t God good? All the time.
So, help me God! To endure at the end of the bench. How many of you here were born in a mansion? How many of you here had a maid to make up your bed? How many of you here when you finished 12th grade had a four-year scholarship waiting for you to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, USC, UCLA– raise your hand? How many of you here were born at the end of the bench, raise your hand?
You know that small beginnings can mean great possibilities. There’s more in the man than there is in the land. There’s more in the woman, you have to take that embryo.
Look at ya. Don’t make any excuses for where you are or where you come from. Just say, I’m glad to be here! Tell your neighbor on your right: I’m glad to be here!
Hey! I’m glad to be here. Sure beats anything else. You were born in some woman’s stomach. And you look at that little belly beginning to swell. And you look at that little life in it. That baby is starting out on a voyage, like a sailor going on a ship with sealed [orders]. You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know what you’re gonna encounter. You don’t know how you’re gonna act when you do encounter it.
But listen, sailor, the Captain knows. The Captain knows the destination. The Captain knows what you’re gonna meet. And if you’ll just trust the Captain, you shall get home someday. If you trust Captain God. If you put yourself in the hands of God, as you’re going to the new millennium, raise your hand and say, “Yeah!” Yeah, thank you Lord!
And God leads you. God may not lead you to Jerusalem. God may lead you to Bethlehem. God may lead you not to the Holiday Inn. Oh, well, God may lead you to a stable. Everybody may not say, “Oh, praise you, praise you!” But there’ll be some angels who know your birth. And they’ll be some wise people who can look upon you and say there’s more than to the man than there is to the land.
Somebody will say it. It doesn’t matter if you’re born in the projects. Just make sure the projects are not born in you. Somebody will save you. You don’t have to have a college scholarship to go to school. All you have to have is a work ethic. I’m gonna work, fight and pray. Somebody’ll come looking to find you.
Look at Matthew 2, beginning at Verse 7. “Then Herod…” That old rascal! “…sent a private message to the astrologers. The wise men. The magi. I sing them to come see him. At this meeting, he found out from them the exact time when they first saw the star. Then he told them, go to Bethlehem, search for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me, so that I can go too, and worship him. Go to Bethlehem.”
Our subject: Are you really looking for Jesus?
Three brief moments. Three brief moments. The first moment: Are you coming to church? Or are you coming to Jesus? Ask your neighbor that: Are you coming to church, or are you coming to Jesus? You fix your face, you’re coming to church. You fix your heart, you’re coming to Jesus. You wash your car, you’re coming to church. You wash your ways, you’re coming to Jesus. You come out of duty, you’re coming to church. You come out of love, you’re coming to Jesus. You’re coming because you’ve got on your new Neiman Marcus, you’re coming…oh, my Lord. Are you coming to church or are you coming to Jesus?
“It’s my Christian duty.” Nobody wants you coming to see them out of any duty. If you love me, you come because you love me. I wanna be in your presence this morning, Jesus. I’m not here for form or fashion. Everybody here who’s glad you don’t have the flu, say, “Praise the Lord.” Oh, thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus. Are you coming to church or are you coming to Jesus?
The magi were coming to Jesus. The magi, they called them astrologers. They are scholars called the magi. They are people who study signs and who look at the signs that are given, they are deeply convicted people. They call them the magi, the astrologers. They have seen a strange star in the sky. And the people of that time believed that a strange star announces the birth of a great person. Alexander the great, 333 BC, a great star announces his birth. And now there’s another star in the sky, and they are told that the Jews are saying, “When that star appears, the Messiah will be born. The son of God will be born. When the great star appears.”
I don’t know whether you believe it or not, but when you were born, a star appeared. That star was Jesus. When you were born, and your momma laid you on the altar and had you baptized. When your momma may not have known where the next meal was coming from, your momma just followed that star. You were born under a star, y’all don’t care what sign you were born under, you are blessed this morning. Tell your neighbor on your left, “I’m blessed.” I’m blessed. I’m blessed.
They’ve gone back and looked at the star charts and they have seen that on April the 17th, 6 BC, there was a strange star in the sky. They have dated that as the precise birth date of Jesus. April the 17th, 6 BC: That’s when our Lord was really born. The early church took a December date, a festival date. It was really a date when people celebrated the end gathering of crops. And they assigned that to the birth of Jesus. But we really know that Jesus was born at a different date.
But we also know something else. It isn’t when Jesus was born, it’s whether Jesus has been born in you. It isn’t Christmas on December 25th. It’s Christmas every day of the year. He woke me up this morning. It’s Christmastime. When I bow my head and say, “Thank you for the bread on my table,” it’s Christmastime. When my child stays away from drugs, it’s Christmastime. When my car doesn’t break down on the freeway, it’s Christmastime. When I get over that bad relationship, it’s Christmastime. Say, “It’s Christmastime!”
There was a star. It was probably the intersection of Jupiter and Saturn. But it’s happening every day of our lives.A little boy is walking along the street with his father. It’s night and it’s the wartime of World War II. And people who had a son at that time–women weren’t there as much, a daughter in the military–they hung a star in the window. And he walked along. “Oh, Dad, look at the stars in the windows!” People who’ve given a loved one to the service of their country.
Then there was a break in the buildings, so that against the backdrop, there was the sky, the night sky. And there was a bright star of God shining. And the little boy says, “Oh look, Daddy! God must’ve given a son too! Because God has hung His star in the sky. God has hung His star in the window.”
Oh, God so loved the world, God gave his only begotten Son. That all you and I have to do is believe in that Son. Believe in that God. And nothing can get you down. Going into the New Year, you can be a brand-new person. If you don’t have a family at Christmastime, God so loved you that God gave Himself to you. You don’t have to worry when you’re looking for Jesus. If you believe it, say, “Amen!”
Are you coming to church or are you coming to Jesus? Alright, I’m coming to Jesus, I’m coming to Jesus.
Are you coming to Jesus, then, our second consideration: to help Jesus or to hurt Jesus? A lot of us hurt Jesus. You and I are commercials for Jesus, you know that? You and I are commercials for Christ. And every time we do something that’s negative, we are hurting Christ.
Did you speak to the usher this morning when they gave you a bulletin? Did you say, “Amen”? When the choir made your soul happy, did you say, “Amen,” or did you just sit there and take it for granted? Do you know they gave up their whole holiday season, practicing and even getting ready for Friday night? Did you greet ’em and say, “Thank you, you gave me life”? Did you touch a child this morning and say, “I hope you have a merry Christmas! C’mon, let me give you a hug”? You and I are commercials for Jesus.
I can hurt Jesus if I’m a phony. If I’m a preacher who preaches one thing and lives another thing, I can hurt Jesus. If I’m concerned about the money I get, rather than the money church gets, I can hurt Jesus. If I don’t prepare myself to talk to you and to walk in your hearts, I can hurt Jesus. If I don’t visit hospitals, and prisons, I can hurt Jesus. If I don’t do something about the man pushing a shopping cart with no place to stay, I can hurt Jesus. And if I can hurt Jesus, you can hurt Jesus. Have you helped somebody as you traveled along? Have you helped somebody by knowing right from wrong? Are you a commercial? Are you here to help Jesus? Or to hurt Jesus?
We hurt Jesus when we gripe a lot. Tell your neighbor on your right: “You gripe too much!” You just gave them a Christmas present. Most of us fuss too much. You know that? Choir, tell your neighbor, they fuss too much. They just waiting for the meeting, so they can tell them they fuss too much. Balcony, tell your neighbor, you fuss too much. Isn’t this a nice day? Say. “Yes!” Ah, some of you didn’t even see it. “I like it cold,” then go to New Hampshire. “I like it hot,” then go to hell. You fuss too much! You fuss too much.
“I don’t have a red dress,” well wear a black one. What you fussing about? You got your fat clothes and you got your skinny clothes. When you’re fat, put on your fat clothes. When you’re skinny, put on your skinny clothes. Stop fussing so much!
“I don’t have no money.” Well, you join the club! Ain’t nobody else got no money. Just don’t say, “I ain’t got no sense, so I ain’t got no religion.” You a commercial for Christ. Are you looking for Jesus to help Jesus or to hurt him?
Herod was looking for Jesus to hurt him. Herod is called Herod the Great. Actually, he’s a puppet king under the Roman dynasty. And in 40 BC, they started calling him “The King of the Jews.” Herod: the King of the Jews. And he lives until 4BC–that’s, again, how we can date the birth of Jesus? Herod the Great, Herod the King of the Jews, then he hears a rumor that a king of the Jews is going to be born, and people come looking for this King of the Jews. Some Persian, some Persian astrologers come looking for the King of the Jews. And Herod, with his sly self. Herod, with his rascally self, decides he got to get rid of the competition.
Daughters, sons, the greatest pain you and I face is the pain of jealousy. Tell your neighbor on your left, “I ain’t jealous of nobody.” Mean it now! Mean it. Neighbor, turn back to ’em and ask ’em then, “How come you keep looking at my shoes?”
Oh, you have so much for which you can be thankful. And if you need to hear it, your neighbor will tell you, “You are just a beautiful person, you have such a lovely spirit feel. I am so glad that things are going well for you this morning. It’s good to see you again. I hope that the year 2000 will be a full year for you. If you wanna work a little bit with me, we can work on the drinking problem that you just mentioned. We can work on the drug problem that you just mentioned. We can work on helping get your kids alive, if you just mentioned, but I want you to know, it’s so good to see you smiling. It’s so good to see you happy.”
You’re a door keeping the House of the Lord. How can you give our cheer if you look like you’re going northbound on a southbound route? Why don’t you c’mon now! Give God your best. You are commercial for God.
Herod. Herod. Herod is a hypocrite. I wanna see Jesus, so I can help Jesus. When actually, I wanna hurt Jesus. I wanna hurt him. You go find out where he is. What city’s he’s to be born in. Herod asked the religious people, say, “Bethlehem.” Michael 5:2 says the Savior is to be born in Bethlehem. Alright, you wise men go to Bethlehem. Then come back and tell me, so I can go worship him. So I can go and get rid of the competition. So I can go and get rid of this thing that threatens my own power. A hypocrite.
Oh, there are many stories floating around, they’re so cute, but one version, this preacher stands up, “I don’t like hypocrites!” He stands up. “Hypocrites are doomed to go to hell! If there’s a hypocrite in the room, stand up, all you hypocrites, stand up!”
One man stands up. He says, “You! You are a hypocrite!” “No, Reverend, I just didn’t want you to be the only one standing up.”
Are you really looking for Jesus? We’ve asked you, are you coming to church or are you coming to Jesus? Then we said, if you’re coming to Jesus, are you coming to help Jesus or to hurt Jesus? Thoroughly, just a few minutes. If you’re really coming to help Jesus, then you’ll go back another way. You’ll go back another way, you won’t be the same as when you came in here.
I just can’t imagine any Christian who’s water-washed, fire-baptized, Holy-Ghost filled and got the Word of God in you, who can’t realize that life is worth living. Life is full of joy. I’m supposed to lift up in life. I’m not the same as I was yesterday. So, I’ve had two bad relationships. That doesn’t mean that the third one is gonna be bad. So, my daddy wasn’t there for me. I’m gonna be there for my child. So, my mama abused me, maybe her mama abused her. But I’m not gonna abuse my children. Maybe I did have a lot of discrimination growing up, but I’mma put that behind me and make out my own agenda. Nobody makes out my agenda for me. Nobody makes me react. I’m proactive. I’m a child of the King. I used to be something else. But then I met Jesus. Since I met Jesus, I’m a new creature. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
I used to be a jive-time turkey dude, but since I met Jesus, I ain’t lying to nobody. I ain’t trying to have a harem with the sisters. I realized that love is deep and love can hurt. And if I’ve been hurt, then I’m not gonna hurt anybody. I’m gonna treat everybody right.
If you wanna go back another way, you’ll dodge Herod. The wise men wanted to dodge Herod. They went back another way. I wish when we walk out of the exit this morning, we’d go back another way. I wish those who were negative, mean-spirited, self-centered, egocentric, egotistic, I wish when you walk out of those double doors, I wish the light of this day would infiltrate you. And you would say to yourself, “Lord, commend my heart, Lord Jesus!” I wish that little Baby could just reach up and touch you!
Until the eight o’clock crowd brought this child, who at 5:30 in the morning gets out of her bed, goes down to the Christmas tree. She’s so excited, unwrapping her gifts. And she starts singing, “Happy Birthday to you.” Her father hears it. “Oh, my little baby!”
She’s mixed up. She knows it’s some kind of celebration, but she’s confused, she’s singing Happy Birthday.
And then he finds out who really is confused. It’s not his daughter. It’s he himself. For she sings, “Happy Birthday, dear Jesus. Happy Birthday to you.” Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for waking me up. Thank you for moving me up. Thank you for sending me back another way. Thank you for putting a light in my life. Thank you for letting me change. Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord! In the name of Christ, Jesus. Amen. Amen.
As we stand…as we stand, if you have no church home, we would like to be your family. One of the three aisles, just come down one of the aisles, your heart in your hand, help us help others. As we sing, as the year winds down, won’t you come?