Thursday, 11 December 2014

"Go on it's Christmas!"

Exeter Temple Bible Message notes: Sunday 7th December 2014
Bible Reading:  Luke 1:28-38

 a) A Call for indulgence
Associated with the phrase, Go on its Christmas is the idea that because it is Christmas we can excuse self-indulgence, greediness and relax our normal standards of behaviour.  We need to be careful of a message that although Christmas is a time of giving it is also a time to give yourself a break from tedious standards of moral behaviour you have to conform to the rest of the year or the boring routine of having to take into account the feelings of other people.  Even in the church there is a message that says, “lighten up” on the heavy commitment stuff, that’s for January.
There is plenty of joy in the nativity story but it is not found in escaping reality or found in the superficial.  Right in the middle of the Christmas story we find the call to discipleship.                                                                     
Jesus said  ”If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me, for whoever loses his life for me will find it.”  (Matthew 16:24)
When the angel came to Mary, to say she was chosen to be the mother of the coming Messiah, Mary was afraid because she faced a momentous challenge. Pregnancy in her circumstances meant being branded by society for carrying an illegitimate child, giving birth to Jesus in primitive conditions and then having to flee for her life as a refugee. It wasn't just the nine months and the delivery of the baby but she was still Jesus mother when his brothers were embarrassed by his cult status, when he was the target of the authorities, when he was arrested, when he was nailed to a cross, when he was laid in a tomb..

Yet Mary simply says in verse 38: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word”.
Knowing the challenges ahead, when Mary meets with Elizabeth she finds cause for celebration.  Mary’s song abounds with joy, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
There is great joy in true discipleship.

2. A call to conform
There is great pressure on people to blend in with what everyone else is doing.  We can feel the need to conform because we fear that others will think we are too full of ourselves if we say we are going to respond to the call of God to act differently but there also may genuinely be a reserve in us that thinks that living a God-filled, holy life, is only for special people.

Mary was young, poor and female-all characteristics that to the people of her day would make her seem insignificant and unimportant. Mary found it hard to believe the phrase “You are highly favoured, the Lord is with you.” Only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel's affirmation and promise, does she manage to summon the courage to believe that God has indeed favoured her by working in her and through her for the salvation of the world.
When Paul says that God has committed to us the message of reconciliation to those who have staked their all on Christ and received new life in his name and that we are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us we need to believe that he means us.
( 2 Corinthians 5:19-20)

We fall for temptation sometimes not just because what is being offered in enticing but because somewhere we have believed a lie about whom we are. We believe what the world says about us, what our culture says about us, what our past, our circumstances or the devil himself says about us.  And if we don’t really believe that we are God’s representatives then we just might as well blend in with the world and have an easier life.
 “From peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary's story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle.”
(Karolyn Lewis)
3 Call to accept our inability to resist temptation                                           
There is an expectation that when people are asked to do something because it is Christmas that they will give in.  We assume that failure to resist temptation is the norm.  We accept weakness as inevitable and cannot be overcome.                                                                                               
Being realistic about our weakness and inability is far better than the hypocrisy that pretends there is no battle for us to live as we ought. When it was suggested to Mary that she would have a baby who would be called the Son of the Most high, who will be a king, she wasn’t being modest when she said, “How can this be I am a virgin.” she was being honest. 
Besides the miracle that would be needed for her to get pregnant without having had sexual intercourse, there must have been the sense of her own inability to be the mother of not just any baby but a baby who was destined to rule a nation.

In the history of the church Mary has often been portrayed as a kind of misty, otherworldly figure but the Bible makes it clear that she was very real, with very real doubts, very real questions and very real faith.  And she was honest enough to know that this thing being asked of her was beyond her natural ability.
The angel's accepted Mary’s words but went on to say that "nothing is impossible for God" is shown by two pregnancies. Both pregnancies were equally impossible. One woman had gone through menopause and the other was still a virgin (Luke 1:36-37)

He doesn’t get much of a mention this time of year but the Holy Spirit is all over the Christmas story. In chapter 1-2 of Luke 5 different people were filled with the Spirit.  Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, John the Baptist and Simeon. After almost 400 years of silence about God’s presence and purposes among his people since the final books of the Old Testament there is now a fresh work of God among his people through the Holy Spirit.
Verse 38 is key to this encounter of Mary with the angel.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you so the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
The gospels and the book of Acts recount how the activity of the Holy Spirit continued to increase, not only through the ministry of Jesus but also as on the Day of Pentecost the Spirit came, baptized and “rested” upon God’s people, with the promise that just as we see in the Christmas story, the Spirit would be for all people, young, old, male and female.

Christians think they are being very humble when they say, “I’m not very holy.” Or, “I’m only a poor sinner. What an absolute affront to Jesus Christ who died to make you good and make you a saint. Far from having to give into temptation because we are too weak to do anything else, God also sends his Holy Spirit to empower us to be and do all he asks of us.
“Do you trust the Spirit enough to say: "I am your slave; take me; use your omnipotent power to put me where you want me, when you want me there, doing what you want me to do"? Do you know why we can entrust ourselves to the Holy Spirit? Because he exists to exalt the glory of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the heartbeat of your life is the glory of Jesus Christ, the Spirit will empower and help you with all his might.”  (John Piper)

-          It’s Christmas – but we could do an Easter thing and take up the cross and follow Jesus? 

-          It’s Christmas but we could do a Bible Sunday thing and believe what the word of God says about who we are in Christ? 
-          It’s Christmas but we could do a Pentecost thing and seek the infilling and empowering of the Holy Spirit in our lives? 

 When we believe and respond to those challenges we will have a joy that will fill this season but will continue beyond it. 

God bless you



Are you ready for Christmas?

Exeter Temple Bible Message notes 
30th November 2014

Bible Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

As a result of their disobedience the people of Israel had been in exile for many years when Isaiah has a new message for them. However Isaiah declares that they should get ready for a change in their fortunes.                                      
“Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that he hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
(Isaiah 40:1)                                                                                                                                                               

It was not enough for the people to rejoice in the fact that the exile was nearing an end but they needed to get ready for the journey home and get to know God again so that they can fully experience the new life that he wanted to offer them. 
1. Get ready for his glory

God would send a messenger ahead of him announcing that he was about to act and bring in a new kind of kingdom. (v 3)  In Bible times, a herald or messenger was a royal officer who proclaimed the king’s messages and decrees to the people. If the king was making a visit to one of the cities or provinces in his kingdom, the herald would run ahead of his chariot and announce his coming. Isaiah says look out for a messenger who would be a sign that they need to get ready to see God coming glory.                                                                                         
The word glory is used to refer to someone getting the credit and being honoured as a result or when we say something is glorious we mean that it is wonderful.  When we talk of God’s glory we mean both. God deserves to be given honour and praise because he is utterly worthy of it.      
glory = weighty                                                                               
God is not insubstantial he is a “heavy weight” in terms of his importance. 
His nature is glorious.
“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind will see it.”
(Isaiah 40:5)

Israel remembered the time in the wilderness when God’s glory had been visibly seen in the pillars of fire and cloud that had guided God’s people to the Promised Land.  Now Isaiah promises that they would see God’s glory among them again.  There would be a sign of his presence and his power visible among them again.  This promise was fulfilled was not through a physical fire or cloud but in Jesus Christ.

“The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
(John 1:14)                                                                                      

As the messenger, promised in Isaiah, John the Baptist had to remind  people not to get so excited about his ministry that they missed his message.  Someone greater, more powerful, more compelling, more amazing than anyone that has ever lived, someone was coming.                   

“After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)                                            
It is Jesus we need to be ready for.  Like the people in the days of John the Baptist it is so easy to get caught up in the overture and miss the concert, to base our faith in the messengers of God rather than God himself.                   
2 Get ready by preparing the way
 In the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40v 3)

In earliest times road work was very simple. Stones were simply removed from the pathway, bumps were levelled, and pot holes were filled. When a dignitary, was due to come major road repairs were made. Isaiah uses this familiar practice to represent the spiritual preparation that the people needed to make so that nothing might hinder the advent of God in their lives.  John the Baptist makes a very clear link between removing obstacles and repentance. Repentance is to turn around from sinful ways, sinful habits and sinful practices.

“Repentance is “genuine sorrow for sin and sincere resolutions of amendment.” (John Wesley)
Boulders could represent the things we have done that we should not have done; the potholes the things we have failed to do which we obviously should have done. (Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community)

We make preparations for Jesus Christ by removing any obstacles that would prevent him from having full access to our hearts.
“Until we sorrowfully change our sinful habits, we are not ready for the Lord to come. Until we repent, we have not prepared our hearts for him. If we truly want to enjoy the Christmas season...we need to prepare our hearts...and the first step of preparation is repentance. We cannot truly enjoy the celebration of Christmas if we have allowed sin to have a foothold in our hearts.” (Anon)
 3. Get ready for God’s power
We must not however that the only way our hearts will ever be ready to make a place for Jesus is through his power.  Whilst Isaiah 40:3 urges people to make every effort to prepare the highway for God, verse 4 seems to indicate that the removal of mountains, the smoothing out of rough places and the filling up of the valleys is something that God himself does to prepare us for the arrival of His glory

The Holy Spirit moves into our lives to fill in our inadequacies, insecurities, and weaknesses.  Every valley of unbelief, fear of failure, and doubting must submit to the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Every thought of “I Can’t” turns into I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need. ……Nothing is more exciting that when God fill the valleys and nothing is more painful than when God levels the mountains.” (Larry Elder)

Without God’s supernatural transformation our attempts at repentance will be as
powerless as New Year’s resolutions

4. Get ready by gaining a true perspective on what is important

Isaiah compares our life and our glory to that of grass and flowers which are fading and temporary. (v6)  The TV so passionately fought for at the shops in Black Friday will probably last 5 to 6 years at the most.
It is the word of our God that lasts forever. We are too used to the emptiness of words and we assume that there will be some level of disconnection between what people say and what they actually do even when the intention is there. There is no disconnection between God’s word and God’s action. The contrast is made between human frailty and God’s enduring word. God’s promises are not like our promises. God keeps his covenant through all generations, even to this day.

Are you ready for Christmas?

Isaiah gives us our true focus for Advent.
The spiritual preparations for Christmas ultimately prepare us for this final return. We don’t repent and clean out our hearts just so that we can celebrate Christmas in a more spiritual way. We repent and make these preparations so that we are ready to welcome Christ on the day of his appearing.


Monday, 17 November 2014

Life of Peter: Called to learn

Exeter Temple Bible Message notes
Sunday 16th November 2014
Bible Readings:     Mark 8 27- 9:4
Following Jesus was a learning process for Peter involving many changes in his outlook and in his attitudes.   
1.  Understanding Jesus’ identity                                                                          
During a wave of popular opinion Jesus dared to ask some questions to test what people and his disciples had really understood about his true identity.
The questions were asked at Caesarea Philippi, an entirely Gentile town situated along the northernmost border of Israel. Three temples stood in the region; to the Syrian god Baal, the Greek god Pan and the Roman godhead Caesar.  Jesus wanted to know if the people and the disciples understand what separated him from those gods and how they understood him in the light of their own Jewish tradition.
The answers “Who do people say that I am?” reflected differing opinions which reflected a good opinion of him. However they were incorrect.
"They had good thoughts of Him, but not right ones; a high opinion of Him, but not high enough."  (Thomas Scott)
The most crucial thing that Peter and all the other disciples needed to do was develop their understanding of who Jesus really was so the second question, “Who do you say that I am” was a much more important question.
 “What I believe about God is the most important thing about me.”  A.W. Tozer
What we think Jesus determines how we value him and how we treat him.
Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!
 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Romans 10:9  
Our salvation hangs on the right confession about our Lord Jesus Christ. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to acknowledge that He is the Master, the Boss and the CEO of our lives. Is that your view of Christ?
Jesus response “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father in heaven.”  Revelation from God is absolutely essential to recognize and to truly confess Christ.
“God who made the light shine out of darkness, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”  2 Corinthians 4:6
Simon hadn’t come to this conclusion about Jesus all by himself.  It was a moment of revelation.  
We need to remember this when we feel that we have to work everything out about Jesus. We never will because our personality, our life experience will put our own spin on him. 
If we really want to know who Jesus really is then we need to ask God to show us by his Spirit.  Of course when you know what Jesus is really like you will know what God is really like too.
Asking the Lord to reveal truth to us does not mean we remain passive.
Just as you can’t expect to see a painting if you won’t open your eyes, you can’t understand the things of God if you won’t open your mind and your heart. 
The way that the Father primarily reveals truth to us is through the Bible.  He uses the Word as an instrument and in order to benefit from it we need to pick it up and use it.  But we will only understand what we are reading or hearing from it if we ask the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding and make it live for us. 
This is equally true when we gather in for worship and fellowship, whether that’s here on Sundays or perhaps at Home league, during devotions at a music rehearsal, in home group, wherever…
A preacher has responsibility to make what they say as understandable as possible but in the church everyone has the responsibility to open themselves to the Holy Spirit for him to reveal specifically what he wants them to know. 
Understanding who Jesus really is requires the revelation of God but also our desire to see, to know to find.  The Bible promises
But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29)
2. To cope when God’s plans are different to ours.
In Mark 8:31 Jesus began to teach on the nature of the Messiah as the suffering servant, explaining that this means he, Jesus will suffer and die.  Peter had developed in his understanding of the identity of Jesus but he had to learn how to cope when God’s plans were different to his own.
In Matthew 16:21 Peter’s reaction is immediate, “Never Lord. This will never happen to you.”
Now instead of blessing Peter for receiving revelation from God Jesus tells him that he is being used by Satan and doesn’t have the mind of God at all. 
The Bible shows us that we need to expect that God’s plans can be different from our plans.
 “His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Isaiah 55: 8-9  
“There is a way that seems right to man, but the end of it is destruction.” Proverbs 14:12
 “The Lord’s works are mighty and that senseless man has no understanding of them.” Psalm 92:5-6
Jesus word to them centred around one word, MUST. It is not a proposal for them to discuss but a plan for them to accept.  
Learn to expect that God’s plan will often be different than your plan.
When we are faced with a “Matthew 16:21” situation, where we don’t understand the mind of God it is important that we don’t give a verse 22 response. “Never Lord, this won’t happen!”
When Jesus plan differed from Peter’s plan, then Peter develops a spirit of rebellion against the person he has just declared to be the Christ? Peter actually took Jesus to one side and told him off. The word took in the Greek is a verb that carries the implication of having a right to do something. Peter took Jesus to the side and told him off as if he had every right to do so.  When God’s plan is different than ours it t is best to ask questions, not make statements.
Things may have turned out differently for Peter if he had asked for instruction rather than jumping the gun and rebuking the Messiah.   Peter thought that his words declaring that he would not let Jesus be harmed to be the greatest display of love to him that he could express but trusting him would have been better.  Peter’s version of love would have stopped salvations plan.
3. To delight in the presence of Jesus
In the light of his hard teaching on the cost of discipleship Jesus knew that his leading disciples need a fresh experience of God.
On the mountain Peter, James and John saw something of how Jesus would look when he went back to heaven and when he comes again.  Peter and the others are awestruck and terrified.  God spoke through this experience and confirmed what Peter had confessed earlier, that Jesus was the Son of God.
Peter delights at being in the presence of Jesus even when he doesn’t fully understand.
The usual message given on the passage is to make people aware that mountain –top experiences don’t last and we shouldn’t try to re-live them. But sometimes our real problem is that we won’t climb the mountain with Jesus because it takes effort and it looks dangerous and we are fearful of the unknown.
Individual Christians will find different things that drawn them to Jesus, e.g some the tenderness of Jesus, others his power and authority. The remarkable thing is that the homely Jesus at tea with Zacchaeus house is the same Jesus who tramples the grapes of wrath.  Sometimes we need to let go of a cosy image of a gentle Jesus and sometimes we need to let go of an image of a Jesus who we think knows nothing of our situation because he lives in the glory in heaven.  We need to let Jesus take us where he wants to take us so that we can really see and understand who he is, that he needs all our attention and that the extent of his love, power and glory is much, much more than we think it is.    
We need to invite Jesus into our lives but also dare to walk into his life and let him take us with him.  Jesus might want to take us up some mountains and it’s no use saying, I prefer the beach.
God Bless

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Life of Peter: Called to Follow

Exeter Temple Message notes 9th November 2014
Bible Readings:  Mark 1:14-20   John 1 35-42

Preachers can sometime give the impression that becoming a disciple is something we should do out of a duty of gratitude to Jesus for all he has done for us despite the fact that living with him is a bit boring and takes the fun out of life.  However the first disciples were captivated by Jesus and Simon later called Peter is no exception.  He followed Jesus for a number of reasons.

a) Relationship rather than religion. 

Religion can be about bricks and mortar, budgets and job descriptions - programs and denominations, rules and boundaries.  When Jesus came to Simon Peter He did not ask him to accept a concept or adopt an ideology, a philosophy or an institution.  He just kept on talking about Himself. “Follow Me,” “Come to me, come with me, come after me,”
b) Refreshing attractiveness of Jesus                

There will always be people in our lives who will ask us to go with them, follow their lead or make a claim upon our allegiance.  However their asking and our going are not automatic. There must be something about them that strikes a chord with us, which attracts us to them.                    
Surely Jesus must have had a refreshing attractiveness about Him.  Sometimes the image that is presented of Him is of someone nice, inoffensive and deadly serious.  We forget that in three years ministry He was accused of going to too many parties, changed water into wine, called the Pharisees and Sadducees names, told jokes, said that Capernaum was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, cursed fig trees and behaved in a disorderly manner in the Temple.   

 “Jesus mesmerized them, captivated them, intoxicated them, made them laugh, made them hang awestruck upon his every word, made them feel a million dollars. Absolutely nothing would be allowed to stop them going with this man who was the first real man they had ever met, a man full of God.”   Richard Giles

c) Reliability of his teaching.                                                                                 
When someone offers us something - we are not always sure of either the validity of their offer or their ability to deliver.
“Was Jesus reliable?
In Mark’s gospel the way the story is presented makes it look like Jesus just happened to be passing by, spotted two likely candidates for His mission and by this chance encounter asked them to join up. But actually when we piece together the other narratives about the calling of the first disciples it happened a bit differently.
From what we read in John 1.35-42, this wasn’t the first time Simon Peter and his brother Andrew met Jesus. Andrew had evidently been following John the Baptist and was impressed when John said of Jesus, "Look the Lamb of God!" (v. 36) He had already spent a day with Him and he was keen to share this great discovery with Simon Peter.  A meeting was arranged.
After John was put in prison, Jesus moved from Nazareth went to live in Capernaum and started preaching.  Simon and Andrew lived in Capernaum and it is highly likely that they heard Jesus preach. In other words Andrew and Simon had time to make an assessment of Jesus before this definite decision to leave their jobs and become disciples.
Simon was not as impulsive as we sometimes make him out to be. We cannot accuse him of an emotional whim in saying yes to Him. 
What really impressed the first disciples and the crowds was that Jesus spoke with an authority, a natural authority flowing from total integrity, the mark of someone who doesn’t just know about God but who knows Him. 

d) The reality of a supernatural God                                                                

When they were near Jesus, they sensed God was near. When Jesus spoke it was as if God was speaking. When Jesus came upon a need He didn’t sympathise He called upon God to meet the need and the need was met, often in miraculous ways.  When Jesus faced evil He faced it with the confidence of God and conquered it. 
f there is nothing supernatural happening in our midst we can call ourselves a club, a society, a discussion group or a charitable organisation but we cannot call ourselves a church.   
Being around Jesus means that we are put in touch with the reality of a supernatural God.  What is happening among us, what positive changes are taking place in some of us and in our circumstances and lives that we cannot account for apart from God Himself being at work?  If they are not happening is that because we have pushed Jesus to the margins rather than him being our focus?

e) Room for ordinary, unqualified people

Having come to the conclusion that Jesus had all the qualities needed to fulfil all Peter’s dreams about the coming of a new kind of faith and his hopes about the coming of the Messiah,  Simon then has to ask, “Why would such a man be interested in having someone like me as His disciple”. 

Simon was an ordinary person. He was not trained in the Jewish religion, as the Scribes or Levites or Priests. He was not a Rabbi, a Pharisees or a Sadducees. He was a fisherman. That didn’t mean he was stupid or gullible but in calling Simon it is as if Jesus wanted to make a statement that anyone could be used by Him for His purpose. Jesus wasn't looking for the "cream of the crop." He was looking for ordinary people.

"For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble."  
1 Corinthians 1:26

What have we done to the message of Jesus Christ that He has ceased to be good news for many people? 
Maybe because instead of magnifying him we have reduced him, thinking we are making him more palatable and less demanding. 

It is time to recognise not only who Jesus was in his own day, despite the failure of his contemporaries recognize him but also who he is and will be in our own. “He came to what was his own wrote one of his greatest early followers and his own people did not accept him. That puzzle still continues. Perhaps indeed it has been the same in our own day. Perhaps even his own people this time not the Jewish people of the Western world have not been ready to recognize Jesus himself. We want a religious leader not a king! We want someone to save our souls not rule our world! Or if we want a king someone to take charge of our world what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace just as Jesus contemporaries did. But if Christians don’t get Jesus right what chance is there that other people will bother with him?”

“We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience and Easter itself to a happy escapist ending after a sad dark tale. Piety, conscience and ultimate happiness are important but not nearly as important as Jesus.”

(Simply Jesus NT Wright)

 We have reduced the spell-binding mystery of union with God and each other through the irresistible seduction of the bride of Christ, to a cheery, Sunday morning therapy session where the main question put to newcomers is: “Did you like it?” as if it were a meal at a restaurant or a newly released movie.”  (Geoff Ryan)