The Christmas Story

The prophets had long since been stilled. The voice of the Lord was not heard. Daily life went on with hope gradually fading with every passing year of occupation and subservience. Where was the promised Messiah?

In these days came the beginning of the Gospel. It started out with a priest – not the High Priest, just a priest, a godly one, and even that fact was notable and unusual. On an ordinary day as he went about his normal service in the temple an angel of the Lord appeared to him by the altar. The childless priest and his wife were to become parents. This child would be ‘Elijah come’, and he would be named John. The child would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb – consecrated for a task. As the aged priest questioned the prophecy the angel announced himself: “I am Gabriel – I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, but you will not speak until my announcement is fulfilled because you did not believe.”

Six months later God sent Gabriel to another town to Mary who was betrothed to Joseph in marriage. In this age of silence God’s messenger had come again. “Don’t be scared, Mary, I’m here because God approves of you, I’ve not come in judgement. You will conceive and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, he will reign over Israel forever, his kingdom will never cease.” This would come about not through natural means. Mary was betrothed, but not yet married, but the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and give her this son.

So, in due course John was born and his father’s voice returned. This child, this son would be called the prophet of the Most High who would go before the Lord to prepare his ways and to give the knowledge of salvation to his people. God was speaking to his people once again!

And in these days as the Roman rulers demanded a census Joseph and Mary returned to Joseph’s family town – Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant and almost due. The town was in turmoil. All those who had left for the city of Jerusalem, or for larger towns had all returned for the census. There was nowhere to stay. And so Mary and Joseph were left with nothing but a stable to spend the night. When Jesus, the Son of the Most High was born, Mary wrapped him well, and laid him in a manger.

As Mary and Joseph lay and watched their child, amidst the noise and smells of the stable, they must have wondered: “Is this really the prophecy fulfilled?”

Meanwhile, far from the town, away from the lights of the inns and homes, out in the fields were shepherds, watching their flocks. There an angel of the Lord appeared and with the angel the glory of the Lord shone around. In the darkness of the fields at night it terrified the shepherds. But the angel said: “Don’t fear! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today, in the city of David is born to you a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord. Here is the sign that proves it. You will find a newborn, wrapped and placed in a manager.”

And as the promised Messiah was revealed to these simple shepherds it was as if the heavens themselves couldn’t contain their silence any longer and suddenly with the angel, bursting forth into time and space in the fields outside Bethlehem is the entire host of heaven, myriads of angels praising God together and crying:

“Glory to God in the highest!
And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

And when the angels had gone the shepherds left their sheep. They had something much more important than sheep on their minds. They went to Bethlehem, they found the newborn in the manger as the angel had told them and they found Mary and Joseph. As they told the parents the story of what had occurred out in the fields Mary in wonder treasured up all these things, the confirmation of the prophecy to her all those months before. And the shepherds returned to their sheep glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.

At the right time, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be presented to the Lord in the Temple, according to the law. There, in the Temple was Simeon, a godly and devout man, seeking God and waiting for God’s promised salvation. God’s Holy Spirit was upon him. He knew that he would see God’s Messiah before he died, and so he waited. When he saw Jesus he took him in his arms and blessed God.

“Now I can die in peace! Now I have seen with my own eyes your salvation, your light, shining for all nations, and for the glory of Israel.”

This is the beginning of the Gospel. Not the promise, but the fulfillment. This is the moment in time when God in grace broke into his creation with his own Son. God, the Word through whom the entire universe was brought to be was now in his creation. The Word become flesh!

Here, at Israel’s lowest point, when God had been quiet for centuries, when hope had all but drained away, when religion had become perfunctory and a duty, here God broke in! The grace of God’s angel Gabriel to Zechariah and to Mary hides the momentous events that are unfolding. And yet, at the very point of the incarnation, of God breaking into his own creation for our salvation, at this point all of the heavens burst forth in praise! How can we imagine what it was like to be on that hilltop with the shepherds? This was something the like of which had never been before, and never will be until that same promised Messiah returns again!

How can we honour this promise in our lives at this time when we have chosen to remember Christ’s coming, Christmas? Please do celebrate, please do decorate your home and sing your songs and visit your families, but in so doing, treasure up in your heart the reality behind Christmas – the God of Creation become one of us to save all of us from our own sin and rebellion. And as you meet with families and friends, remember the grace that came to us all that first Christmas, the offer of redemption, salvation, forgiveness – hope and peace. And as you accept that from God for yourself, offer the same forgiveness, hope and peace to those you meet.

When we consider, when we treasure up these thoughts they almost defy description, but that should only drive us to praise and worship the more as we celebrate a Christmas that at it’s heart tells us:

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!”

The Bottom Line – Psalm 73

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Looking out at the world can be a soul destroying thing. This world is full of evil, and full of evildoers, who somehow always seem to thrive and do well. And as we look out we are inclined to stumble. The natural instinct is to envy the wicked their ease, to see their unpunished prosperity and wonder why they do wrong and yet prosper. The more we look, the worse it appears. It makes life to be a wearisome task.

But, if we are to free ourselves from stumbling we must enter into the sanctuary, the place where God is – only there will this life make sense. We can only come into God’s presence resting on the reconciliation to God won by his Son. But, as we enter into God’s nearer presence, our embittered souls are sweetened and our spiritual compasses are realigned. God is our goal, our measure of what is good and right; God, and not this world is our goal and our glory. No-one else, nothing else matters except our relationship with the living God, the Creator God, the Redeemer God, the Consummating God who will one day reveal himself and his purposes in fullness.

The more we look at the world, the less we look at God. The more we look at God, the better we see the reality of this world and the world to come.

For every son and daughter of Adam the bottom line is:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever!

Psalm 73:25-26

Authentic Church

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Authentic is all the rage at the moment. We want honest people, transparent ideals, reality, authenticity. This need for authenticity has seeped into the Church too. Of course, it is a genuine need and one that becomes more necessary with every generation of Church. As we become involved in our local fellowship, as one generation passes on to another we gradually accumulate that which is not biblical and include it in our traditions – and that is what they are: extrabiblical traditions. That’s what the Pharisees became and promoted – human tradition over biblical truth. The thing is, we can as easily make a tradition out of modern praise as we can out of singing 300 year old hymns. It’s not the what but the why that matters.

As I look around me I can see churches and denominations failing. I can see new startups beginning to address these traditions, but very often lacking a sound basis for that change. To be honest, give them 20 years of existence and they will have their own traditions to pass on.

So, how do we get it right? How do we get to authentic Church?

The first thing to realise is that we are already authentic Church if we are born again of the Spirit of God! Throughout the Bible God promises: “They will be my people, I will be their God!” This is our true position, we belong to Him, wholly, as a people, our identity is bound up in His ownership of and inhabiting of us as a people.

The second thing to realise is that we must live as that people and in order to do that we must understand fully just who we are in Christ. Note that I said ‘who we are’, not ‘who I am’ or ‘who you (singular) are’. God called us as a people, sent His Son to be our Groom and we His bride. There’s no place for individualism in the Church. You can’t just sit it out until Christ returns and listen to the God channel on TV.

I’ve attached a PDF that gives a fuller summary, a study that I prepared over 10 years ago, but which I am still convinced would help if we applied it to our understanding of how we ‘do Church’. But I’d like to summarise three things that to me are the hallmarks of Church. These are in order for a reason. We first of all look Godward, secondly we look to one another as God’s people and thirdly, on the basis of the first two things, we look outwardly in witness and evangelism.

Worship

Everything is for God, this universe that He created, the people in it, everything has a solitary purpose for existence: the glory of God. Without this the world has no meaning, the universe has no meaning, our lives have no meaning. We must always look to God first. In our personal lives, and in our corporate lives as the chosen people of the Creator of the universe and sustainer of all things. If we do not do everything to God, for God, in God, then nothing else will matter. All the good deeds in the world done outside of a Godward heart are in vain.

Our doing Church authentically can only be done so wholeheartedly seeking to know God, to touch God, to relate with Him as His people, as He intended. We must rigorously, vigorously channel all that we do as a local church through this attitude. If we do not look to God first and foremost we can do nothing of eternal import.

This is the true nature of worship: we sing in Him and to Him, we serve in Him and to Him, we weep in Him and to Him, we live only and ever in Him and to Him. To do so as a gathered people is to glorify Him as He intended.

Edification

Edification literally means to build up. As we look to God we worship, as we look to one another, understanding who we are in God we should have a heart to help, to build, to encourage, to make one another more able to serve God, because to do so glorifies God and builds up that of which we are also a part – in helping others we please God and help ourselves.

I know that seeker sensitive has been a watchword for a generation of believers, but I honestly believe that edification comes before evangelism. How can we witness when we don’t know how? How can we bring in new believers when the Church is not working as it should?

Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Evangelism

The imperative of the Great Commission is to make disciples – that’s evangelism and edification rolled into one. We have the most incredible message of hope for a hopeless world. Even if it was not a command, we must feel the obligation to share the Good News. As the Godward living people of God, understanding just what that means, as mutually encouraging and edifying believers that faith must overflow the local fellowship into the community.

The story is told of a child who asked his dad: “How big was Jesus?”, the dad thought for a moment and then gave an educated guess. The child, who obviously had been thinking things through responded: “If he’s that big, and I ask Him to live in me, then he’s going to stick out somewhere.” Jesus should stick out in our lives: He’s too big to be contained. That’s our evangelism as a natural outworking of our worship and edification.

So, with each generation of Church and local church we need to strip back to the essentials. Identify tradition for what it is. If it helps, keep it, but only as it helps, never as a rule, and never on a par with Scripture truth. Get your priorities right and see the church, God’s people as God’s, and not ours. Seek him and His Kingdom and all the rest will fall into place.

“so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:12

Authentic Church – A Brief Study

Short Shots: Theologically and Practically in Christ

Coffee, Short Shots

The book of Ephesians is at once simple and exceedingly complex. It’s short enough to read at a single sitting and deep enough to keep you learning for years. Here are a couple of things that help to see what the book is about.

  1. The book of Ephesians contains 6 chapters. The first 3 are predominately theological, the second 3 are mainly practical. This is a pattern for our lives. Get your thinking about God right, based on his Word, then your practical lives will have the right foundation for living as God’s children.

  2. The first section repeatedly tells us that our theological position: our forgiveness, redemption, our privileged place before almighty God is only found in Christ. As believers we already stand forgiven in Christ, our hope is in Christ. Theologically we are already in Christ. Practically speaking we need to move into Christ – our lives don’t match up with our position. This is why Paul urges us to ‘walk worthy of the calling’. It’s not our starting point, but it should be our ending point. Ephesians 4:15-16 tells us:

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

As Christians we often live inconsistent lives. We stand in Christ through faith, but we live out our lives faithless and outside of Christ. Let’s ‘walk worthy’ because we are all looking to the ‘one hope that belongs to our call’

Working your way to the top

Coffee time devotions

Luke 18:1-6 tells the story of how the disciples asked Jesus ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ What prompted this question? The kingdom of heaven was still, in the disciples’ mind a nebulous concept, there was no set of rules they could follow, there was nothing tangible to get to grips with. I don’t think that the disciples were just wanting to know in absolute terms who was the greatest there and then. I believe that they were (possibly subconsciously) trying to figure out the nature of this kingdom of heaven and how to get on in it. In the same way that the Pharisees had ‘gamed’ the system of Judaism in order to rise to the top (they added their own set of rules to make it simpler for them to win), so the disciples were asking: ‘How do we succeed in this new regime?’

The answer is that you’re asking the wrong question! The answer is that you don’t try to ‘game’ the system in order to get to the top. Child like innocence and humility is required. A deliberately naive failure to see or to seek a pecking order among God’s people is the true nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ words on those who cause a child to sin reveal just how wrong he considers this position seeking to be. Anyone who encourages or entices a believer into position seeking is an enemy of the kingdom! In a church full of position seekers and granters we must take these words very seriously.

If we would be authentic members of the kingdom of heaven, then we will choose deliberate humility and Christ like service – this should be our aspiration. If we would be authentic members of the kingdom of heaven we would take seriously Jesus’ comments on position seekers and keep Christ’s Church free from Phariseeism, power broking and position seeking.

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