Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Mystery of Love

Exeter Temple Message notes
Sunday 8th December 2013

Ephesians 6:19 
Christians awake, salute the happy morn
Wherein the Saviour of mankind was born
Rise to adore the mystery of love.
Which host of angels chanted from above
There is something of a mystery around the Christmas story.  The mystery is not just that no-one is really sure whether Jesus was really born in a stable, about strange star or how many wise men there were. The mystery that surrounds the story is centred upon how God chooses to make himself known and the methods he uses to restore his relationship with the human race.
1.      Appearance
There is a real sense in which God is a mystery because he has been hidden from us. This is simply because he is God and we are human beings.
1 Corinthians 2:10For who among men knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”
It is like our humanity is a curtain in front of our eyes and we cannot see through it.
The Biblical definition of mystery is "A divine, sacred secret that is hidden in the heart of God, and cannot be understood unless God chooses to reveal it to man."
The coming of Jesus into the world is a moment of revelation as dramatic as the opening of the curtains of a play, although it didn’t happen on the world stage but in the obscurity of a little town in the backwater of the Roman Empire.
1 Timothy 3: 16 “He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit was seen by the angels was preached among the nations was believed on in the world was taken up in glory.”
When Jesus appeared, something unique and amazing was displayed to the world.
Hebrews 1:1  “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe.”
When we study the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus what is revealed to us is the very character and nature of God himself.  Hebrews 1:2The Son is the radiance of God’s glory the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things through his powerful word.” 
What has been hidden has been made known.
2. Accessibility  
God not only chooses to make himself known but this the revelation is now accessible to all people.  
In Ephesians 3 mystery is a key word.  This word mystery is taken right out of Paul’s culture, where mystery religions were common. Ephesus was filled with secret societies and mystery religions. To join one, you would go through an initiation, and if you passed, then certain codes and secrets would be disclosed to you. And as you climbed through their hierarchy, providing you fulfilled their conditions the people “in the know would let you see the hidden things.  But only the special people could join. These cults were built on limiting information to the few and the more complicated they could make the study of God the more they felt superior to those who couldn’t understand it. To the man on the street who was not a member of these religions the secrets they held were called ’mysteries’
Whilst the people belonging to the mystery religions believed that knowing God came about through unravelling complicated codes and philosophies, Paul had spent his whole life trying to understand and know God through the meticulously keeping of the rules of his religion and being zealous about keeping out anyone who held un-orthodox views.  But he remained deeply unsatisfied with this and a real relationship with God eluded him.
Then one day everything changed for him.  He understood that he could not earn salvation, he could not rely upon his heritage to put him in a right relationship with God but he needed God’s grace and mercy, which was available to him through Jesus Christ.
This was the secret, this was the key.  It was a person, it was Jesus Christ.  This understanding that he came to was not down to his own cleverness but came through revelation. In Ephesians 3:3 he refers to “the mystery made known to me by revelation.” God came to him on the road to Damascus and then used Ananias to explain the message of Jesus to him.  Paul also rejoices in the fact that he is not the only one to see that the way to God was through grace. It had been made known by the Spirit of God to the holy apostles and prophets and even to the non-Jews, the Gentiles. 

Paul is excited by the idea that there is no barrier of intellect, race or culture to knowing God.  The coming of Jesus Christ means God can be known by anyone.   
“Why doesn’t everyone accept this good news?”  What stops people from understanding that they can know God?  The Bible says that Satan has blinded the minds of people.  There is evidence of God around them, perhaps even within them but they cannot see it. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world convicting people of their need for God and he has the power to lead people into truth.  The way in which he works is in itself often quite mysterious.  Sometimes we have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing under the surface of a person’s life. 
 Often it appears that nothing much is happening in the spread of the kingdom of God but we need to be assured that even when we cannot see it, the Holy Spirit is at work. 
It is another mystery that God has chosen to use ordinary human beings to spread the news that he wants people to know him through Christ. The Holy Spirit invites us to join him in his work. Paul rather than keep the information about Jesus Christ to himself was going to tell everyone.
3. Amazement
It may be that the presence of mystery and ignorance of the ways of God in our understanding is down to the fact that we have allowed sin to blind us and we haven’t applied ourselves to the study of God’s word or spent enough time in the presence of Christ.  
God has already revealed far much more of his nature than we have grasped and he is ready and waiting for us to ask, to seek and to knock on his door so that we might enter into more understanding.
However God’s love remains a mystery.  He is not a scientific equation to be worked out; he is not a puzzle to unravel or a code to unlock.  He is a person who illogically and unbelievably loves us so much that he is prepared to behave in the most unpredictable way. 
Whilst it should be a comforting thing that there is a God who is bigger, wiser, more powerful and more loving than we are, most of the time human beings spent their time trying to make God fit their understanding, their plans and their thinking.
Ephesus 6:19Pray that I will be given the message to speak that I might fearlessly explain the mystery about the good news.”
When we act in obedience and respond to the Spirit’s leading we so, often find that he has already gone before us. Ultimately a person must invite Jesus in. John’s gospel so clearly states, “To all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God.” 
When Paul became a Christian he could see that the missing piece in the puzzle of faith was Jesus Christ but in all his writings there is never a sense in which you feel Paul has God pinned down.  It continued to amaze him that God could love him. More than anyone Paul could explain the doctrine, unpack the theology and apply it all to life but he was still full of wonder.
1 Timothy 3:16 “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great.”
No one twisted God’s arm to send his son Jesus to the world. It’s not because he looked at us and was impressed with what great Christians we’d be. We didn’t deserve what God has given us.  We didn’t deserve His mercy and kindness but he loved us anyway. God who’s entirely has chosen to enter into a relationship with us.
One preacher puts it like this. “This is an incredible mystery that the free potter would choose to have a relationship with the clay.”
Whenever humans encounter God, we’re going to encounter mystery. We will never become God’s peer. There comes a time when the only appropriate response to him and that is to worship.

God bless


Thursday, 5 December 2013

The branch and the baby

Exeter Temple Message notes 1st December 2013
People have long used imagery to capture the essence of what they want to express.  The prophet Isaiah uses many word pictures to creating an image in the minds of his hearers to help them grasp the message of the coming Messiah.  Two of these images are a branch and a baby.  
       1.      The Branch bearing fruit
 Isaiah 11:1 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Trees often live so long, that we imagine that they will always be there. But when for whatever reason a tree is cut down and all that remains is the stump it looks as good as dead.
That is what was said of the monarchy in Israel after King David had gone. In a few hundred years the “tree” that had been King David and his royal dynasty had fallen.  It was but a stump and so was the nation of Israel.  
There is a lesson here is pride, in what we trust in and in realising that every generation needs to find its own relationship with God. 

The image of the stump is something that we can apply personally as a picture of those times when all our hopes and dreams have been destroyed or chopped down or for some people that feeling that the good times were in the past and now there is nothing but a stump to show for all that has gone before.
Collectively we must recognise too that the stump can speak of our fallen humanity. Sin cut down the glory of what mankind was meant to be and without a miracle the result is a dead stump.
But Isaiah comes with a message of hope.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
It should be noted that Isaiah refers to Jesse, David’s father rather than David himself. Using Jesse’s name rather than David’s was a testimony to how much had been lost.  The line of David was now, so unimportant that is fallen to the level at which it stood when humble Jesse bore the honour of the family name long before David’s glory as king.
But even so a shoot shall come out from the tree stump.  In this life, there are things in our lives that seemed to be almost beyond hope but somehow, almost unbelievably when we thought all was lost, there is a sign of life, a green shoot. In contrast to the dead wood, a small shoot seems insignificant, however it has life and therefore it has the potential to grow.   It is almost unnoticeable at first and only those who are looking really see the possibilities that the shoot will become a branch.
Isaiah goes on to say, “from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
The reference to the Branch is not just referring to good times coming again but is about a person.  The Branch became a proper name, for a Saviour, a Messiah who would restore the fortunes of God’s people.
For years this did not look like being fulfilled. By the time of the New Testament Israel royal family was a joke. Herod the Great was not a descendent of David and he was a puppet of Rome. Yet it is revealed that the baby born to an obscure peasant woman and her carpenter husband is the One who will save his people from their sins.  Yet despite incredible danger a baby born to an obscure peasant woman and her carpenter husband is the new shoot of the stump of Jesse, who survives and grows to become the Branch.
Isaiah 4:2 “In that day the Branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.”

He might not start off looking like much but don’t be fooled, he will be beautiful and glorious.  Isaiah goes on to describe this beautiful life of the Branch in chapter 11 :2-3 
It is easy to see Jesus in the words we have just read.  
Jesus himself takes up the idea of himself being like a tree bearing fruit when he referred to himself as a vine and also when he talks about his kingdom being like a mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree where all kinds of people can find refuge and shelter.
Jesus is a branch that will bear fruit.  “from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”

Here is the most radical aspect of God. This Branch growing out of the stump of Jesse’s shredded family tree would be put on another dead tree, a cross and from that dead tree blossomed salvation full and free. God can take a sinner like me, dead in my trespasses and sins, dead in spirit, dead to the divine and put a new nature in me, making new what was shrivelled, making alive what was dead, making time enter all eternity with rejoicing and weeping for joy.”  (unknown author)

The question is what are you looking at, the stump or the shoot? 

A new baby                Isaiah 7:14/Isaiah 9:6
We find the first in Isaiah 7:14-15 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.”
When Isaiah wrote these words, King Ahaz was on the throne of Judah. The nearby countries of Syria and Israel had formed an alliance and sought to conquer Jerusalem. In panic the king was trying to form a military alliance to protect his people. God sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz with this message, that God will give him a sign of hope. The sign will be a particular baby.  The text doesn’t say that a virgin or young woman will conceive but the virgin as if Ahaz will immediately know who Isaiah is talking about.  Most scholars believe it was someone in the royal court, probably one of Ahaz’s wives.  It is therefore implied here that Ahaz should not miss this message. He should be alert to the signs around him.

Watching and waiting are a common advent theme.
Waiting includes watching, looking out for an indication that something is happening that you need to respond to.
The child, in Isaiah was to be a continual sign as he grows up. During those difficult times his name Immanuel will remain as an assurance that God will be with them. V15 says that the child will eat milk and honey. Milk and honey, in the Bible is the food that is associated with the Promised Land and is a sign that there is a future beyond this desert experience. The situation is bad but God is the great Redeemer. And that is true for us all as we face the tough times. God is with us and he can turn anything to serve our ultimate good.
Isaiah returns to speak about a child in his prophecies again and develops the idea. In Isaiah 9:6 Isaiah speaks about a child who will be born who will not just be a reminder of God’s presence but who will actually lead and govern for God, in a way never seen before.
We know because Matthew tells us that we can directly link the prophecies in Isaiah to the birth of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 records that the message that the angel delivered to Joseph included a direct quotation of Isaiah 7:14.
Once again God was going to demonstrate to the world that He was with them. This time however the baby wasn’t just any ordinary baby, who was being used to demonstrate a point, as a sign that God was with them but the baby himself actually was Immanuel, God with them.
As John puts it, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1 & 14)

When the shepherds were told, “This will be a sign to you, you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, it wasn’t the baby that was the sign. The swaddling clothes and the manger were the sign that they had the right baby.
Jesus isn’t pointing to something else, he is the destination. The shepherds didn’t get excited about the manger or the swaddling bands but about the fact that they were witnesses to the truth that the longed for Saviour was here. 
When Simeon saw the 8 day old baby Jesus in the temple, in his spirit he didn’t sense that this baby was a signpost that the Messiah was on his way, he declared, “Now let you servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Jesus at Bethlehem is not symbolic, he is a real person who we can meet and know.  Jesus at Bethlehem is not a metaphor of God’s presence, this really is God come to earth. 

Bramwell Booth  “The nature of the whole work of our redemption is made manifest by the one fact- he really came. His everlasting love, his infinite compassion, his all embracing purpose were from eternity; but we only to to know of it all because he came.”

Branch and baby were signs that became reality when Jesus came to earth.  The further reality is to follow the signs to meet with Jesus personally. 

God bless