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.