The Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3:15-17,21-22

You can listen to this Sermon HERE .

As the Old Testament Reading we used a personal paraphrase of Isaiah 43:1-7. It reads as follows:

Isaiah 43:1-7 – a personal paraphrase

Hear his good news all of you, God’s people.

This is what God says to you: “I formed you. I created you. I have redeemed you by name. You are Mine.

Yes, you may pass through deep waters of troubles and trials, but I will always be there with you.

You may pass through raging rivers of overwhelming sadness and stress, but they will never sweep right over your head and destroy you, because I will be there with you.

You may find yourself in the fire of affliction, suffering and pain, but they will not destroy you, they cannot destroy you because I will be there with you.

I am the Lord your God!

You are precious and highly valuable to Me; and I love you. Do you hear Me? I love you. I would give My life for you. I DID give My life for you.

I created you for My glory. I designed and fashioned you, My masterpiece – the crown of My  Creation. I called you by name.

Do not be afraid. I love you. I am with you.

As mentioned in the Bulletin, today is the Sunday on which we engage in an annual remembrance of the baptism of Jesus. Having been:

  • born in Bethlehem,
  • dedicated at the Temple in Jerusalem,
  • worshiped by Magi from the East,
  • taken to Egypt by his parents as a refugee from the evil king Herod for a few years,
  • returning to be raised in Nazareth, and
  • undergoing bar mitzvah and his first journey to Passover in Jerusalem

… this is the next event which any of the Gospel writers record from the first 30 years of Jesus.

Between age 12 and age 30 Jesus seems to have been living in Nazareth in obscurity. Reading between the lines, Jesus has probably been:

  • following in Joseph’s footsteps as a carpenter
  • Caring for his mother and younger siblings after Joseph’s death
  • worshiping God and learning at the synagogue in Nazareth like any other man of his age.

But now, at age 30, John the Baptist has been carrying on a remarkable ministry of preaching and baptising in the wilderness, and Luke says that “when all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too.” (3:21)

Now, although this is not what I feel God wants us to focus on today, I would like to just touch on the obvious question: Baptism (then and now) signifies the cleansing of sins; and yet the Bible assures us that Jesus had no sin. So, why did Jesus insist on being baptised?

In insisting on being baptised along with everyone else, Jesus was sending the powerful message that as God in the flesh:

  • He did not have to, be He chose to identify with us completely and share in our humanity fully. He never stands aloof from our human experience as if He’s above it.
  • He climbs right into our world of sinfulness and suffering with us.
  • Had no sin … so if the water of baptism was symbolic of the washing away of the sins of those who were being baptised with Him … then maybe the symbolism for Jesus was of getting Himself dirty with the sins of others … our sins … the same ones He would one day carry to the Cross.

But … baptism also signifies a new beginning. It is a dying to the old and a rising to the new. For the others whom John was baptising, they were making a firm decision to die to a life of sin … then signifying that in the baptism … and then rising to a new determination not to sin.

But for Jesus it seems as though this moment signified a different kind of change … a different kind of dying and rising.

Until this point, from a young age, Jesus has been living in Nazareth. His life has been settled, secure, safe … He has a strongly established social network, He has been serving God at His local synagogue and supporting His younger siblings and His mother.

Now, it seems, the call of God has come to Jesus and it is time to move on. Jesus has sensed in His heart the call of the Father to a mission of teaching, mentoring and healing … that will take Him away from His human comfort zone and out onto the highways and byways of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. It will not only be a life of self-sacrificial service but it might even lead Him into the face of grave danger. For a season He will not have a home to call His own … He will travel rough … He may suffer hunger and thirst… and while some will accept His teaching with joy … as is always the case some will reject and even oppose it violently. I mean just look at His cousin John the Baptist and the danger he faced from King Herod. I believe Jesus knew fully that He faced great risks if He followed through on His decision to follow God’s call.

And so it was that at this watershed moment in Jesus’ life … this moment of dying to His old life in obscurity in Nazareth and His taking up of the responsibilities of His public ministry. Jesus chose to mark the decision … to mark the moment by being baptised.

No wonder God the Father also chose to mark this moment in a most remarkable way!

Luke 3:21 says: “Jesus was baptised too. And as He was praying, heaven was opened…”

In that watershed moment for Jesus, God the Father chose to perform two incredible acts of ministry … to give two incredible gifts to Jesus:

  1. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit
  2. The word of Love

 1. The Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit

Had the Holy Spirit not been with Jesus until now. Yes, of course He had. Jesus had been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and as He grew in wisdom and stature, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit was at work in Him.

In that stage of Jesus’ life, the Spirit had been at work to grow and mature Jesus. This moment of baptism, however, marked a gear-change in the life of Jesus … and therefore also a gear-change in the type of ministry the Spirit would be doing in His life. Luke 4 (which sketches the start of the next phase of Jesus’ life) makes it clear that the Spirit “filled” Jesus and “led” Jesus (4:1), and that Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Holy Spirit” (4:14).

Jesus had realised that the ministry God was calling Him to was going to be totally life-changing. But in the moment of His baptism God showed Him that He was not going to have to do any of it in His own power.

The Holy Spirit is the invisible presence of God. Most of us have never seen the Spirit in bodily form. But God the Father wanted Jesus to be left in no doubt that none of this ministry was going to have to be done in His own strength … so He gave this clearly visible sign … the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove … What was God saying? … Jesus, right now, I am giving You a fresh measure of the Holy Spirit. Nothing will ever be the same again!

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 43, God makes a beautiful promise to the Israelites … I believe that in giving the Spirit with the manifestation of a bodily form to Jesus, God was leaving Jesus in no doubt that this promise was true for Him: “When you pass through the waters I will be with You (v.2) … do not be afraid, for I am with you (v.5).”

The presence and power of God Himself was now on Jesus.

You know, this is what God did for us too when we were born from above?! When you and I committed our lives to Christ, God may not have given a physical manifestation like a dove … but God put His Holy Spirit within us. We were born again spiritually by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit with in us.

In Ephesians 1:13 Paul put it this way: “When you believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.”

And in Romans 8:9-10 Paul explains that anyone who is in Christ has the Holy Spirit living in them and that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is therefore at work in us. How awesome is that!!

At the moment of His baptism … His moment of decision to follow the call of the Father … Jesus is filled with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

At the moment of our decision to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour and therefore to entrust our lives completely to Him by faith … we are filled with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Halellujah!!

2. The Word of Love

Had Jesus known that God loved Him until now? I’m sure He must have.

But Jesus was about to embark on a journey of ministry and life that was going to be incredibly difficult … and you and I know full well what it’s like for us when life gets tough and painful. We find the question rising in our hearts: “Does God really love me? Is God angry with me for something?”

God the Father wants to leave this matter utterly established and settled in Jesus’ heart: “You are My Beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased.”

Throughout the next three years of Jesus’ life and ministry, He was going to be faced with moments when the crowds loved Him … and moments when the crowds hated Him. He was going to go through seasons of great popularity when everyone was well-pleased with Him … but also moments of such deep rejection when the crowds were heading back home, disappointed that Jesus would not do miracles at their demand … that He would turn to His 12 closest followers and ask them: “What about you? Are you also going to leave? (John 6:67)”

Yet, throughout this up-and-down journey of love and hate … popularity and rejection … the Father wanted a bedrock foundation established in Jesus’ life: “You are My Beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased.”

Even for Jesus … God incarnate … life could only be faithfully and fully lived from a foundation of knowing that He was utterly loved by God the Father … and that it mattered not a bit that any human being was displeased … as long as God the Father was pleased!

Once again, this was not a new revelation. To the Israelites God had said in Isaiah 43: “You are Mine (v.1) … You are precious and honoured in My sight … and I love you (v.4)”

This is also, once again something that you and I can share in too. Just as we share with Jesus the experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit … so we also share in the wondrous witness of the Holy Spirit that we too are the beloved children of God.

John 3:16 testifies that it was because of His love for us that God sent His only Son into the world to save the world. 1 John 4:9 says that “this is how God showed His love among us … He sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him.”

Romans 8:9 says that by the Holy Spirit we are brought into a father-child relationship with God where we cry out to God “Abba, Father”.

We are loved by God! And while God’s word of love to us might not be audible … His word of love is planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit: “God has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit”, says Romans 5:5.

What do we take with us?

Maybe this all sounds foreign to you. Maybe you feel that you have never experienced God in this way.

Then today is the day to come to Jesus … today is the day to entrust your life to Him in its entirety … to surrender completely to His Lordship and to trust in His mercy and love … to hand the rest of your life over to Him the way Jesus was handing the rest of His life over to God the Father.

For in the moment we do that we are saved from sin and death … our past is forgiven and our future is secured … and we receive from Jesus the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, Who brings to us the reality of God’s presence, God’s power and God’s love.

Equally however, you may say …well I know that I am a Christian … I have been born again by faith in Christ … but I have begun to doubt the presence and the power and the love of God at work in my life … I feel as though I need a fresh encounter with Christ … and a fresh impartation of the Holy Spirit.

Wonderful! You’re in good company. In Luke 9 Jesus came to that point too, it would seem .. .and the Father called Him up a mountain and again spoke this word over Him: “This is My Son whom I love.”

When we read the book of Acts we see how the early apostles were, from time to time, filled with the Holy Spirit … as though for new challenges they needed new impartations.

It is not that the love or the Spirit of God ever left Jesus, the disciples or us … but that we need the re-affirmation in our hearts and experience that we are loved and that the Spirt dwells within us as the presence and power of God.

So what do we do? DO we get re-baptised? NO.

Jesus certainly didn’t and neither did the apostles. What did they do?

Matthew and Mark’s Gospels tell us it was just as Jesus was coming up out of the water that God the Father made His move. But Luke adds a few little words you may never have noticed before. Allow me to read Luke 3:21 again: “Jesus was baptised too. And as He was praying, heaven opened …”

And this, friends is the simple answer staring at us in plain sight. When Jesus went up the mount of transfiguration and heard God’s voice of love again … what was He doing up there? Luke 9:29 says that Jesus “went up onto a mountain to pray!”

In Acts 4, when the apostles and early Christians were in dire need of a fresh impartation of the Spirit, we read that “they raised their voices in prayer (v.24) … and (v.31) after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

Are you in need of a fresh word of God’s love or a fresh impartation of the Holy Spirit? PRAY! Just come to God … admit your need … surrender yourself to Him (Lord I can’t do this without You! I need You! I need Your Spirit! Forgive me for having gone so long trusting my own strength and ability) … and by faith receive from Him!

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Time to Grow

Luke 2:40-52

The year 2018 is almost over. 2019 is poised to be unleashed on us. Who knows what the coming year will hold? No-one. Yet we rest in the knowledge that God knows what is to come and that, by His grace God, has been preparing us to face whatever comes and not only to face it but to empower us to be more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. God has been preparing us and is already going ahead of us to prepare the way for us to do great things for His Kingdom in 2019.

Today’s reading is a wonderful testimony to the ways in which God is at work to prepare us and to use us for His glory.

Our reading is the only incident from Jesus’ childhood which is recorded in Scripture – between the time He and His parents returned from their exile in Egypt, and Jesus’ baptism by John in the wilderness.

It gives us a summary view of what God was doing in Jesus during this season of His life.

I hope that it will encourage us in a few ways this morning.

Context

First, let’s consider the event in the context of Jesus’ life.

Luke 2:21-39 records how Joseph and Mary faithfully had their firstborn son circumcised on the 8th day, and named Him Jesus in accordance with God’s command to Mary through the angel (1:31). Then, as commanded by the law of Moses, when the correct period of time had passed, they took Jesus up to the Temple in Jerusalem to present Him to God as their firstborn son and make the prescribed offering.

The fact that they offered a pair of doves indicates that they were poor – because Leviticus 12:8 says that if the mother cannot afford to offer a lamb she is to offer a pair of doves or pigeons.

Then, Luke records that both the old man Simeon and the widow Anna prophesied over Jesus; and finally we are told … as our reading for today began … that they returned to Nazareth and Jesus “grew and became strong (lit: was strengthened in spirit); He was filled (lit: crammed) with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him.” (2:40)

Notice immediately that three things were being done to Jesus here. he was the recipient. God the Father was the only One who could have been doing these things to Jesus. Jesus was:

  1. Being strengthened in spirit
  2. Being filled with wisdom
  3. Having God’s grace upon Him

This is a very important statement. It is something Luke clearly wants to lay down as being the key distinguishing factor of Jesus’ childhood. I say that because Luke also ends our passage for today with a very similar statement in v.52: “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (lit: maturity), and in favour (lit: grace) with God and men.”

I believe that Luke wants us to hear that Jesus, throughout His childhood, was being grown by God in three things:

  1. wisdom
  2. spiritual maturity
  3. grace

The Vital Virtues

What are each of those virtues? Without going into any detail, allow me to give a brief definition of each:

  1. Wisdom: Wisdom isn’t simply knowledge or even understanding. It is the ability to apply knowledge and make decisions that lead to a particular outcome. And if we are talking about godly wisdom … then that outcome is the will of God … the pleasure of God.
  2. Spiritual maturity: If one were to be perfectly spiritually mature, then one would be exactly as God desires one to be. Growing in spiritual maturity is about becoming the person … having the character and nature and personal qualities … that are pleasing to God. It is a matter of character. The New Testament gives us a few lists that represent descriptions of spiritual maturity. We read one today from Colossians 3:12-17; viz. compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, peace and love. And of course Galatians 5 contains the most famous one – the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.
  3. Grace: Well, we defined grace on Christmas Day didn’t we. Grace is unconditional and undeserved love and acceptance. Unconditional love – that’s grace.

 

So here we are at the end of 2018. As we look back on our year … there may be many important things to measure. We might measure our weight, our fitness, our wealth, our progress in a career or academic education … but today’s portion of the Word of God invites us to measure ourselves against a different set of virtues.

So as you look back on your year, are you able to discern progress in the virtues of:

  1. wisdom?
  2. spiritual maturity?
  3. grace?

Let’s just take a minute to reflect on that … to ruminate on ourselves.

  • Have we grown in wisdom?
  • in spiritual maturity?
  • in grace?

OUR CALLING

The good news is that growth in these areas is a partnership between God and us.

Remember I alluded to the fact that in Luke 2:40 Jesus is the recipient … God is the active doer. Jesus was:

  1. Being strengthened in spirit
  2. Being filled with wisdom
  3. Having God’s grace upon Him

But when verse 52 arrives, “Jesus grew” in wisdom, maturity and grace.

SO God did it and Jesus did His part too.

As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ … and as His disciples … we have been filled with the Holy Spirit.

Here is the good news: The Spirit of God is at work in us to grow us in wisdom, maturity and grace.

Here is the challenge: We are called to grow ourselves in wisdom, maturity and grace.

It is a divine partnership between us (in our free will) … and God the Holy Spirit in His sovereignty.

HOW?

So HOW will we grow? What part do we have to play in our own growth?

The seeds of the answers are also in this passage:

  1. Put God in His rightful place;
  2. Study His Word in community;
  3. Be obedient to whatever God has put right in front of you.

Let’s briefly unpack each of those statements:

  1. Put God in His rightful place: When Mary and Joseph discovered, at the end of a day’s journey, that Jesus had not joined the travellers returning to Nazareth, they spent the next day returning to Jerusalem, and the following day searching. Eventually, on that 3rd day, when they found Jesus in the Temple, Mary said: “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” To which Jesus replied: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in My Father’s house.” At the tender age of 12 Jesus had come to the realization that God was his Father … and that God’s will took top priority. God, the Father, was in His rightful place in Jesus’ life. If you want to grow in wisdom, Proverbs says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom begins with putting God in His rightful place on the throne of one’s life … and regarding God’s pleasure as one’s top priority. So here is the questions for us: How will I ensure that God remains on the throne of my life in 2019 and will I resolve to make God’s pleasure my top priority?

 

  1. Study His Word in community: When Mary and Joseph found Jesus on the 3rd day, Luke 2:46-47 says, “He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding and His answers.” This encounter was of course very normal. That was how the rabbi’s taught. They spoke … they allowed questions … they answered … and others responded. It was learning in conversation … sharing of thoughts and ideas and opinions … all in submission to the Law and the Prophets. Think for a moment about the fact that this is exactly how Jesus would have been watching events unfold in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Because Jesus was 12 at the time, it is very likely that the reason he went to Jerusalem this year with Mary and Joseph was because he had just had his bar mitzvah. Under Judaism, Jesus had just become an adult man under the Law. So while he was physically and materially still dependent on his parents and still subject to their authority in the home … He had taken upon Himself the responsibility for His own spiritual growth. Now here He was hungry to grow and not ready to leave. And Jesus knew that the best way to grow in spiritual maturity, wisdom and grace was to study God’s Word in community. He had been watching it happen in His home synagogue for years … and the amazing understanding that He had already developed was tribute to not only the Spirit of God … but particularly to men of the synagogue in Nazareth. So here is the questions for us: How will I study God’s Word in community in 2019? Not, will I join a home group or a Bible Study, but which one will I join? Or given my circumstances, am I perhaps being called by God to start a home group or Bible Study to enable the Word of God to be studied in community?

 

  1. Be obedient to whatever God has put right in front of you: Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was the Messiah. But at age 12 Jesus was living in the home of Mary and Joseph and they were His earthly parents … and Luke 2:51 says that He was “obedient to them.” In other words … don’t think you are too good for some form of service to God. You may rightly feel that you have gifts and abilities that should be put to better use … you may feel you deserve a bigger stage … but you know what… be obedient and honour God where God has put you right now! God will promote you when the time is right … If it took Jesus, the Son of God 30 years before His public ministry began … you and I can be patient for as long as it takes for God to release us to the next form of service … which may seem more important to us … or frankly it may be less important in our eyes … but all that should matter to us is what mattered to Jesus – to be obedient to exactly what God put in front of Him. So here is the questions for us: What has God put right in front of me that I am meant to be obedient to?

CONCLUSION

As we approach the beginning of a new year, 2019, and as we no doubt turn our minds to some kind of new year resolutions … may I suggest that a vital resolution to make is that we will work in partnership with the Holy Spirit to grow ourselves in wisdom, spiritual maturity and grace … and that we will do whatever is necessary to make that growth happen … :

  • putting God in His rightful place as King of our lives and Ruler of our priorities
  • studying God’s Word in community; and
  • being obedient to the tasks God puts right in front of us.

Christmas Day 2018

Grace has Appeared

Luke 2:10-12 and Titus 2:11

Luke’s account of the coming of Jesus is a story that is profoundly familiar to so many of us. We read it or hear it again and again every year at Christmas time. Right at its heart lies this incredible statement:

“The angel said to the shepherds: ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you – you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

Good news of great joy! That sounds almost cliché at this time of year. But, listen carefully, this is no cliché. This is the most profound statement of fact. And if we will actually hear it and respond to it … it will become the centrepiece of our lives.

A few decades after these events, Paul the apostle wrote to a young minister called Titus, and he explained the coming of Jesus into our world in this beautiful sentence:

“The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” (Titus 2:11)

So here is my attempt to state in as succinct a way as possible what the message of Christmas is for us today. I’ll state it as if God Himself is speaking to us. God says:

Jesus Christ is My grace made visible. My offer to you is this: Turn your lives over to be drenched in My grace … and you will not only be transformed by My grace … you yourselves will become signs of that grace in My world.

What does this mean? Let’s reflect on it bit by bit …

  1. God’s grace made visible

Grace is probably the most beautiful of all Christian words. It means, in a nutshell, A GIFT OF UNDESERVED ACCEPTANCE AND LOVE.

God has decided, in God’s sovereignty and wisdom, to look upon YOU and me … and to act towards you and me … with nothing but acceptance or love … no matter who we are or what we have done.

Because that is virtually impossible for us human beings to believe and accept … because it so overwhelmingly too good to be true … the historical person called Jesus was, in truth, God Himself … coming to both show us and proclaim to us that it is so … that He has decided to look upon us and act towards us with nothing but undeserved acceptance and love.

Now that kind of decision would make a person incredibly vulnerable wouldn’t it. I mean if you decided that no matter what this person in front of you had ever done or said or thought … or would ever do or say to you or think about you … you would only ever respond towards them with undeserved acceptance and love … you would in fact be making yourself totally vulnerable to them.

If therefore, from start to finish, Jesus’ life was going to be a visible manifestation of God’s grace … God’s undeserved love and acceptance … what better sign of that grace could there possibly be than Him coming into our world as a baby?

God came and lived among us to offer us His grace:

  • The first sign that He had come in the absolute vulnerability of grace … was that He came as an infant … born not only into the vulnerability of infancy … but also of poverty.
  • Throughout His life, His words taught grace … and His life demonstrated grace … to the prostitutes, the demon-possessed, the diseased and outcast, the oppressors and the oppressed.
  • And of course, the final nail … the final sign of the absolute vulnerability of His grace … was that He died at the hands of humanity … refusing to hate … refusing to retaliate … loving and loving and loving again.

 

  1. Turn your lives over to God’s grace

The angels said that this good news would cause great joy for all people.

We know, however, that for people like Herod … and the Pharisees … and the High Priests … and the Roman powers of the day … this good news did not cause great joy.

Why not?

Well, like Paul said: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.”

Love never forces itself. Love never imposes itself. That is part of its vulnerability … part of its unconditional nature. So the undeserved love and acceptance of God is offered to us … but it remains our decision whether or not we will respond to that love.

Personally, I can think of no good reason on this planet to reject that offer of undeserved and unconditional love and acceptance.

Why would anyone in their right mind receive the most beautiful Christmas gift … wrapped in gold paper with their name on it … and stick it up in a high cupboard somewhere unopened … never to be looked at again?

The grace of God is good news that causes great joy … but only if we choose to turn our lives over to that grace. This is the invitation of God to us today: “Turn your lives over to My grace. Surrender to it. Open your heart and life to it. Let me in. Let me love you. Let me forgive and wash away all your sins. Let me heal our relationship again.”

Paul Tillich said that “love manifests its greatest power there where it overcomes the greatest separation.” (Love, power and Justice; p.25) This is the invitation of God’s grace today.

 

  1. Be transformed by God’s grace

What we will discover when we turn our lives over to experiencing God’s grace is that God’s love will transform every part of us. When God’s love is given free rein in us, everything changes.

  • We see ourselves differently – i.e. the same way God sees us – i.e. as His beloved!
  • We accept that we are loved.
  • We experience the power of God’s forgiveness of all our sins.
  • And we experience the wonder of an unhindered relationship with God … and unhindered friendship with God.
  • The God who created us for friendship and love with Himself is back in our lives:
    • walking with us,
    • talking with us,
    • healing us,
    • restoring us,
    • encouraging us,
    • comforting us,
    • guiding us
    • granting us wisdom and discernment for living
    • leading us in ways of goodness and love

Everything changes.

Everything, that is … including also the way we see others! Because we begin to see everyone around us differently – i.e. the same way God sees them – i.e. as His beloved!

Which means that we …

  1. Become signs of that grace ourselves

Have you ever had a friendship with someone who had such a dynamic, contagious personality, that you found after a while you were being infected by their ways of thinking and even speaking and behaving?

We see this power of relationship in a negative way when our children hang out with the wrong crowd. But we also see it in a positive way when they change their crowd and come under the influence of different friends. Who we hang out with and spend time with influences who we become.

Here’s the beauty. When you hang out in a grace relationship with the God of all grace … you are transformed into the image of grace. God does that work in you. It is unavoidable. When you have responded to His offer and taken Him up on His invitation to turn your life over to His grace and you are living with Him in daily fellowship … His grace will infect you.

The invitation of Christmas is to let that happen … but also to work on it:

  • Be deliberate about becoming more like our Friend and Master, Jesus – who was and is the grace of God made visible;
  • Act graciously towards others, the way Jesus did
  • Forgive the wrongs they do against you, the way Jesus did
  • Live humbly, treating others as more valuable than yourself, the way Jesus did
  • Give of yourself to others, the way Jesus did
  • Be vulnerable … the way Jesus was;
  • Be a peace-maker .. the way Jesus was.

 

God’s Word to us this Christmas is: Jesus Christ is My grace made visible. My offer to you is this: Turn your lives over to be drenched in My grace … and you will not only be transformed by My grace … you yourselves will become signs of that grace in My world.

 

Advent 4 – Confusion to Celebration

Luke 1:26-38 and 39-56

The sounds and sights of Christmas are very much in the air at the moment aren’t they. Families are gathering for time together. Some offices have closed. The shops are bursting at their seams. Christmas trees are up, the tinsel is strung, lights are on in windows. It feels like a special time of the year. And at last our Lectionary Readings reflect the looming celebration. It feels to me that for the first three weeks this Advent we have been firmly stuck in the ministry of John the Baptist as he prepared people for the coming Messiah. And that has been a very important and meaningful part of our journey. But now at last our readings turn to the preparations for the birth of Christ in His first coming as the Saviour King.

The theme of our 4th Sunday of Advent is LOVE, and I have titled the Sermon, “The Power of Love”.

I invite you to join me in stepping back from the minute details of the angelic and human encounters in Luke 1:26-56, and to see for a moment the larger picture of the dramatic transformation of a young teenaged girl called Mary. In this passage we see first a picture of Mary trapped in utter CONFUSION … and yet when the passage closes, Mary is completely freed in loud CELEBRATION. What has happened? The answer, as we will discover, lies in the central verses of our passage, where Mary meets Elizabeth and receives her COMFORT.

So now let’s move in again. Not too close to confuse ourselves … but close enough to see Mary … first in the place of CONFUSION.

  1. CONFUSION

Luke 1:26-38

Mary lives in the small town of Nazareth in ancient Israel. She is young; she is unmarried; and she is pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. She has no other distinguishing features. She is not from an important or wealthy family, otherwise they would have been named. She does not have a trade skill or that would probably have been named. Like most Hebrew girls she had no formal education. She was young, obscure, uneducated and unskilled as far as we can gather. But as we saw in Advent 2 – God loves to use obscure, nobodies.

The first thing to confuse Mary is that an angel appears to her. Now what fascinates me is that unlike almost every other angelic encounter in the Bible, the first words out of the angels mouth are not: “Be not afraid”. Instead the angel Gabriel launches straight into the most beautiful greeting:

“Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you!”

Then, rather than being afraid of the angel, as most people are, Mary, we are told, was “greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (v.28)

Mary was confused precisely because she knew how much of a nobody she was. Maybe Gabriel had come to the wrong street in Nazareth? Surely his greeting was not meant for her. “Highly favoured” or “charitoo” in Greek, means “much graced” or “graciously accepted”. This latter meaning is the one the translators apply to the same word in Ephesians 1:6 “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.”

Mary was greeted by the angel as one who was the object of an enormous measure of God’s love and acceptance. And she was CONFUSED because she couldn’t understand why that should be.

But if she thought that was confusing, she had a far great shock in store. Gabriel continued to speak and disclosed to her that, although it was physically and humanly impossible, she was about to become pregnant … and that pregnancy would lead to the birth of one who would be called the Son of the Most High, who would rule as King of an eternal Kingdom!

“How can this be, I am a virgin,” Mary responded.

“How can this be???” Utter CONFUSION.

And then, although the angel explains that it will happen through a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit … and even though Mary takes the step of faith to adopt an attitude of servant-hearted submission to God’s will saying, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled,” I do not for a moment think that any of this was any clearer to Mary. Verse 38 closes with Mary as CONFUSED as any human being has ever been.

 

  1. CELEBRATION

Luke 1:46-56

Skip the central part of the passage, we will leave that for last. Come with me to the closing verses. A massive transformation has happened and we observe Mary freely expressing CELEBRATION and praise to God.

Something has happened in those intervening verses and CONFUSION has given way to CELEBRATION.

Mary has had a total change of perspective. PUZZLING over God’s will and ways has given way to PRAISING GOD for the wonders of His will and ways.

Mary sees herself differently now. She sees that rather than being something to grudgingly submit to, God’s plan for HER is actually a beautiful thing. She says:

  • My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
  • God is mindful of me
  • I am blessed and all generations will know it
  • The Mighty one has done great things for me

Mary also sees suddenly that God’s plan for ALL WHO FEAR HIM is a beautiful thing too:

  • His mercy extends from generation to generation of those who fear Him.

And Mary sees that God’s plan for His entire HUMAN FAMILY is a beautiful thing:

  • God performs mighty deeds for us
  • God is the great Leveller who scatters the proud and uplifts the humble … who brings down the mighty and lifts up the weak;
  • He fills the hungry and refuses to overfill those who already have enough.
  • She sees that God is about to build a Human Family, not through overthrow where the oppressed become the oppressor … but where all are together forged into a community where everyone has enough and no-one has too much.

Mary’s heart is overwhelmed with the goodness of God towards her and the goodness of God’s plan for His world … and she is completely exuberant in her CELEBRATION.

Before we move from this it might be an appropriate moment for us to pause and ask ourselves what our song would be like. These are the things which Mary chose to celebrate about God and His plan for her and the world. But how about you? What do you feel moved to celebrate? Could you perhaps pen your own CELEBRATION Song to God for the wonders of His plan for you and your world?

There’s a project for the next day or so. How about you offer that as a Christmas Gift to God? Write God a song of praise, exalting Him for His good deeds in your life and His beautiful plans for you, your family, your Church, your community and our world.

But the question remains … How did this change happen in Mary? How did she move from CONFUSION to CELEBRATION? The answer lies in our Sermon Title: The Power of Love. We’ll talk about it under the heading, COMFORT.

 

  1. COMFORT

Luke 1:39-45

The song Mary sang in her CELEBRATION is widely known as the “Magnificat” because that is the first word in the Latin of her song. “Magnificat anima mea Dominum: My soul magnifies the Lord!” It is a magnificent song.

But it only came into being … this magnificent song … because there was first a magnificent act of comforting love.

In her state of utter CONFUSION … and no doubt with a fair measure of fear and anxiety, stress and strain … Mary, Luke says, “got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.”

In her state of CONFUSION Mary sought out the one person on earth she thought might be able to understand what she was going through. Why? Well Gabriel had told her that her “relative Elizabeth is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her 6th month. For with God nothing is impossible.” (1:36-37) If Elizabeth had received a miracle pregnancy … then of all people on earth she might believe Mary’s story that her pregnancy too was a miracle … and she might allow Mary to stay for a while, away from the stares and glares of the villagers of Nazareth and their self-righteous condemnation of her pre-marital pregnancy.

So Mary went to Elizabeth. I don’t think anything could have prepared her, however, for Elizabeth’s greeting. If the angel’s greeting had confused her … this one must have blown her away.

Unseen by Mary, the moment she entered the room and greeted Elizabeth, the pre-born John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. So everything that follows is a beautiful pattern for us of a Holy Spirit-inspired ministry of love.

Under the influence of the Spirit, Elizabeth speaks to a CONFUSED and fearful teenage mother:

  • To Mary … probably wishing that none of this had happened and that she could just go back to being an anonymous, unseen, obscure nobody … Elizabeth proclaims with a LOUD voice: “Blessed are you among women!” Meaning: Mary you are highly honoured … more highly honoured than other women. In a nutshell … Mary you are special.
  • To Mary … probably fearing the names her baby would be called … this fatherless child … this illegitimate baby … this “nullius fillius” … this “bastard” … this “love child” … what shame would her child have to face?… To this Mary, Elizabeth proclaims with a loud voice: “Blessed is the child you will bear!” Highly honoured and worthy of praise is this child you will bear.
  • In fact Elizabeth goes even further … if it were not for the fact that we are told she is speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we would have to call her out for blasphemy. She says: “Why am I so honoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” What is Elizabeth saying? She is saying, “Mary, your child is the Lord! You are the Lord’s mother!” See it Mary. Believe it Mary. It is true! When heard your voice my miracle baby leapt in my womb for joy! Even he knows it’s true.
  • And one last word from Elizabeth: Mary, you are not only blessed by the grace of God … you are worthy of this blessing because of one unspeakably important quality: You have believed that the Lord will fulfil His promises to you. It’s on you Mary! You are awesome Mary!

We have already seen the power of what Elizabeth did for Mary. It transformed her PERSPECTIVE and her understanding of what was happening to her! It transformed Mary from CONFUSION to CELEBRATION.

What was it that Elizabeth did for Mary? She gave her unconditional love … acceptance … and affirmation.

While everyone else was probably dishing out liberal measures of self-righteous, judgmental condemnation, Elizabeth dished out abundant measures of LOVE.

She opened her home and she opened her heart. And her LOVE released the power of God to transform Mary. Elizabeth’s love helped Mary to see that she was:

  • Loved by God
  • Accepted and embraced by God
  • Honoured by God
  • Trusted by God
  • Commissioned by God

CONCLUSION

I want all of us to take two things home. This passage is a call:

  1. This passage is a call to hear and believe and accept the truth that YOU are loved and accepted and embraced by God… and that if you will trust Him He will honour you and commission you and empower you. Know that this is true of YOU. You are highly favoured … you are accepted by grace into the family of God.
  2. This passage is a call to be an Elizabeth to your Mary. Do you know someone who is in a place of confusion, doubt or fear? God is commissioning us today to be an Elizabeth to that Mary … to give our unconditional welcome … love and acceptance … and to speak words of affirmation and hope into their hearts … pointing them to trust in Christ and not fear … to trust in Christ and find their hope and future in Him.

Will you join me in committing to hear that call and to obey it this Christmastime?

Advent 3 – The Joy of the Lord TODAY

Isaiah 12:2-6 and 35:10; Zephaniah 3:14-12; Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18

If you’re a regular, then you know that we are into our third week of the Season of Advent – that season of preparation for the coming of the Saviour. When we started Advent 2 weeks ago, I shared that Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) suggested that Christians should recognise three comings of Christ:

  1. in the flesh in Bethlehem,
  2. in our hearts daily, and
  3. in glory at the end of time.

On this Third Sunday of Advent our theme is JOY. {You may have picked that up from the theme of the Advent Prayers and the Songs we have been singing.} And joy is a very appropriate emotional response to all three of those comings of Jesus:

  • When Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the heavens rejoice at His birth, and the angels proclaim that this birth is “good news of great joy that shall be for all people.” (Luke 2:10). It’s no wonder that joy is so closely associated with Christmas celebrations.
  • When Jesus returns in glory at the end of time and the Kingdom of God is fully established, Isaiah foresees that “The redeemed of the Lord shall return, and enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) That’s heavenly joy! It’s no wonder that fullness of joy is so closely with the new heavens and the new earth.
  • I want to proclaim today, however, that God also has a vision for Jesus’ coming into our hearts today that reverberates with JOY.

So that is where our main focus will fall today: THE JOY OF THE LORD TODAY.

And today’s Scriptures proclaim that any true joy that you and I experience will be borne of God’s vision of a joyful people. So let’s begin right there.

  1. GOD’S VISION FOR JOY

The prophet Zephaniah spoke at a time when Israel was under incredible attack, and Zephaniah understood that this was all part of the consequences of their sin. So he spoke of judgment and punishment a lot. But in his 3rd chapter he sees a vision of a time when God’s people will no longer live in the shadow of judgment.

Zephaniah foresees a day when the people of God are glad and “rejoicing with all their heart”. They are singing and shouting aloud.

Why? Zephaniah gives three reasons:

  • Because the Lord has taken their punishment away.
  • Because the Lord, the Mighty Warrior, their King and Protector is with them.
  • Because this Mighty Warrior King who is with them, loves them, delights in them and rejoices over them with singing.

Friends, I want to point out to you that we are those people:

  • We who have received the Lord Jesus Christ have had our punishment taken away … our sins removed as far from us as the east is from the west.
  • Our Saviour Jesus is with us by the indwelling Holy Spirit; and
  • We are God’s beloved adopted children. He delights over us with singing.

The salvation we have found in Jesus gives us cause for great joy! And it is God’s dream and vision for each of us that we would live deeply in that joy … and give free expression to that joy.

The question we have to ask ourselves though is HOW!

How can we live in that joy? How can we live in that joy when God’s Kingdom has NOT yet come in all its fullness, and there is so much pain and difficulty and danger all around?

I believe the answer to that comes, strangely enough, from Luke 3 and the rather in-your-face ministry of John the Baptist.

  1. HOW CAN WE LIVE IN THAT JOY?

John the Baptist ministered among people who had every reason not to be joyful. And frankly, his ministry didn’t seem to be giving them much cause for joy.

He was exceptionally confrontational in his call for people to repent. Of course, this was because the people to whom he spoke were living in ways that robbed others of life. People were living under the oppressive Roman regime. Soldiers were extorting money from the poor. Tax collectors were defrauding people of their possessions. And no-one was looking out for others, but only for themselves.

John, as we saw last week, called people to genuine repentance … genuine life-change … genuine turning away from sin and to God. And people were so impressed with the life-changing effect his ministry was having on individuals and even on society, that they wondered whether he was the Saviour.

Now get this. John replied that he was not the Saviour … and that he did not have the power to save. John only had the power to call people to repent and be baptised in water … but the heart of his message that we MUST hear today is that the actual Messiah .. .the actual Saviour … Jesus Christ .. will not baptise us in water but in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism = baptidzo. It means to be both immersed in and saturated with.

The best illustration of baptism is for me to take a crusty old sponge and press it into this water. The sponge is in the water. It has been “baptidzoed” … but only half. Because although it has been immersed it has not yet been saturated.

Full baptidzo is when I take this sponge and push it underwater … and squeeze it and release it and squeeze it and release it.

Now when I lift it from the water … what happens? The water streams out of it in abundance. Because it has not only been immersed in but also saturated with the water.

How can we live a life of joy? Answer: Because our Saviour Jesus immerses us in and saturates us with the Living Water of the Holy Spirit.

In Jesus, it is not just Zephaniah’s vision of God with us … it is John’s vision of God within us!

The Spirit of God within the believer is a well of living water. In John 7:37-39 Jesus declared; “Whoever believes in Me, rivers of Living Water will flow from within him.” And John adds that by this Jesus meant the Holy Spirit.

Did you read the Advent Daily Readings this week? Were you also blown away, like I was, by Isaiah 12:3? “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” The Holy Spirit is the water of life … and within us is the well of His presence.

How can we be joyful even in the midst of darkness or disease or danger or oppression or opposition or uncertainty … or any of the painful things that tend to rob us of any human reason to be joyful?

Answer: BY drinking deeply from the well of the Holy Spirit within us. By pressing in more deeply to the loving presence of the Holy Spirit of Jesus.

But what does that mean? What must we actually do?

  1. WHAT MUST WE DO?

I want to try to answer this question practically.

If joy is to be found by drinking deeply from the well of the Holy Spirit within us … and by pressing in more deeply to the loving presence of the Holy Spirit of Jesus … what does that mean? What must we actually DO to live in Jesus’ Joy when pain and struggle is pressing us hard?

I want to allow Philippians 4 to help with the answer. Philippians 4:4 simply gives the command: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!” Notice that Scripture here is also very clear that the REASON for our rejoicing is not our circumstance but ”the Lord” . It doesn’t say, “Rejoice in your circumstances”. It says “Rejoice in the Lord!” The Lord is the wellspring of our joy … and the Lord is near (4:3)

But Philippians 4:4 is where it gets practical. I believe it tells us that to rejoice in the Lord always … above all else … we will need to people of prayer.

Prayer is the way we relate to God and communicate with God. And when it comes to living in the fullness of JOY, prayer holds the key.

Listen again to Philippians 4:5-6

“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything. In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Joy-releasing prayer … prayer that taps in to the deep well of the joy of the Lord that is within us by the Holy Spirit … looks in three directions:

  1. Joy-releasing Prayer looks back and gives thanks: When hardships press in and threaten your joy, look back and remember the glorious deeds the Lord has done in your life … and give Him thanks. Looking back and seeing the past wonders of God is a discipline that prepares us to look forward. It is a discipline that forces us to lift our eyes off our problems and difficulties and to acknowledge that God has been with us and done wonders. Troubles and difficulties have a devilish way of claiming to have the final word … they somehow convince our minds that they are what will define our future. But looking back and seeing the past wonders of God is a discipline that puts our faith fairly and squarely back onto the God who actually has the final word in our lives.

 

  1. Joy-releasing Prayer looks inward and sees God: Philippians 4 says REJOICE in the Lord … but it follows that up with “The Lord is near”. Prayer that helps us to tap in to the well of life within us is prayer that does not go looking for God out there somewhere far away watching us from a distance … but rather turns inward knowing that God the Holy Spirit dwells in me. If you’re facing a trial and joy seems oh so elusive … you will not succeed in living the fullness of Jesus’ joy by looking out there somewhere. Jesus is within us … and true joy-releasing prayer happens when we focus on that reality. Because then when we walk away from the place of prayer, we know that we are not walking away from God … we are walking away WITH God. And WITH God … all things are possible.

 

  1. Joy-releasing Prayer looks forward and trusts: “Present your requests to God” says Philippians 4. Pray about the problem you face. Tell God honestly what you desire for Him to do … and trust Him. Tell God over and over if you must. God does not grow tired of hearing our prayers and cries. Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow to teach that we should always pray and never give up. But at the same time, when we continue fervently like this in prayer that looks back and prayer that looks inward and prayer that look forward … we will find that the God who is attentive to our prayers is also the God who talks back to us. If prayer is talking to God (which it is)then surely an answer is not just a desired change of circumstances. If you talk to me … how do I answer you? I talk back. I have seen so many people who prayed so fervently for something but in the end found joy in the answer of God … rather than in the miraculous acts of God.

 

CONCLUSION

On this third Sunday of Advent, as we focus on the joy of the Lord, let’s remember that:

  • the possibility for true, abundant joy was born with the first coming of Jesus which we will soon celebrate.
  • The certainty of eternal joy is found in the second coming of Jesus, to which we still look forward; but
  • The present reality of true, abundant joy is found in drinking deeply from the well of the Holy Spirit with Whom Jesus has baptised us as John predicted. Let us drink and be joyful.

Advent 2: The Word in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-16; Malachi 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11

You can listen to this Sermon HERE

On this Second Sunday of Advent we hone in on Luke 3:1-6. Today my approach will be to move slowly through the Biblical text and just ask it four basic questions, through which we might learn a few truths that God will impress in our hearts today.

The first question is …

  1. WHO?

The Gospel writer, Luke, was an author with an eye for detail; especially in regard to the historical setting of the life of Jesus. He wants us, his readers, to know that what he is writing is an accurate history … something that truly happened in an actual historical, political and religious context.

This passage, relating the ministry of John the Baptist, begins with a list of the political and religious elite of the day.

If Luke was writing today, he might have said, “In the 1st year of the reign of President Ramaphosa, when Helen Zille was Premier of the Western Cape, and Dan Plato mayor of Cape Town – in the final days of the term of Bishop Michel Hansrod, and during the ministry of Dave Howard in Claremont …”

Of course, the people he actually names in order to locate this event in historical context were:

  • Tiberius – who was the Roman Emperor (who succeeded Augustus);
  • Pontius Pilate = who was Governor of the Roman Province of Judea;
  • Herod, Philip and Lysanias – who were appointed by the Romans as “Tetrarachs” – in reality Jewish “puppet kings” of various parts of Israel.
  • The high priests Annas and Caiaphas. These are interesting characters because Annas was actually the previous high-priest and he was succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas. However Annas remained the real political power behind the high-priesthood. That’s why, when Jesus was arrested, in John 18 we read that he was taken first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas the high priest.

So, back to Luke 3 … where, having just listed the who’s who of public life in Judea, Luke says, “The Word of the Lord came to…”

Who do we expect the Word of the Lord to come to?

To Annas? To Caiaphas? Maybe to the King or the Governor or the Emperor?

But no! The Word of the Lord came to John. John? Who the heck is John? Oh, sorry, John, son of Zechariah. Zechariah? Who the heck is Zechariah? John, son of Zechariah. He is on a list of the who’s who … but he is a totally obscure nobody!

Worse than that. If we cross-reference Matthew we learn that John used to dress in camel-hair clothing with a leather belt, and a diet of locusts and wild honey. John, son of Zechariah is an obscure, nobody, weirdo!

And yet … the Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah.

Now I think God want us to see two things here, under the heading of “WHO?”.

  1. First thing: If you see yourself … or are considered by other people … to be an obscure nobody or a weirdo … you must know this: God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure … because while people look at the outward impression … God looks at the heart. Do not think for a moment that God cannot or will not use you because you feel like an outcast … a nobody … or a weirdo. You may, in fact, be JUST the kind of person God is longing to use.
  2. Second thing: When you and I see someone else who looks or sounds like they are just weird, obscure nobodies … we had better sit up and take notice of the content of their actions or speech … because the Word of God came to John the Baptist … NOT to Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate or Tiberius. Just because the messenger seems weird … obscure … or a nobody … does not automatically mean that they are to be ignored or side-lined. God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure.

So that is WHO … and those are some thoughts to ponder about John the weird, John the obscure, John the nobody … who later gained fame as John the Baptist.

  1. WHERE?

Now, of course this is closely related to the WHO. The Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah. We would expect that the Word came to him in the Caesar’s Palace … or in the Temple … or in the Synagogue. But again, we are surprised to read, “The Word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (v.2)

The wilderness was a place of danger from the unyielding heat and lack of water … from the wild animals and bandits. It was a place of barrenness, it was somewhere the Israelites believed that demons roamed. It was a place for madmen and lepers.

And yet the wilderness was also a massively important place for the people of God. God met Moses in the burning bush in the wilderness. God led His people into the wilderness to prepare them for the Promised Land. God gave the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. David fled to the wilderness to escape Saul. Elijah fled from persecution by Ahab and Jezebel into the wilderness. And when Jesus was later to be prepared for His ministry, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness.

You and I do not really want to be in the symbolic wildernesses of life … in the place of danger, fear, anxiety, and stress …the place of lack … of need. We avoid the wilderness places of life.

And yet there is something vital here we must not miss. In Luke 1:80 we read a very important fact about John the Baptist: “And the child grew, and became strong in the Spirit, and he lived in the wilderness … until he appeared publicly to Israel.”

John did not go out into the wilderness because he had a word to speak. He went out into the wilderness … and when he was there … God gave him a word to speak.

You see, the wilderness … the place of difficulty and danger … the place of attack and anxiety … the place of loneliness and lack … is precisely the place where God loves to be … to draw near to people … to meet with us and be with us.

So, again, I think the Lord wants us to see two things here under the heading of “WHERE?”:

  1. When you find yourself inadvertently in a wilderness experience that you wish with all your heart and soul you could avoid … know this … you are perfectly positioned for a divine encounter that could change your life and destiny forever. Look for it. Look for God in your wilderness. He is there! Listen for God in your wilderness. He is speaking!
  2. When you long for a Word from the Lord … go to the wilderness deliberately. Go to the place of solitude and silence. Don’t try to seek out God and His Word in the place of success and noise and busyness and popularity. Don’t turn to the tele-evangelist who will send you a prophetic word for the $100 donation. Don’t turn to the Christianised horoscope of your daily word from God on Facebook. NO! Go to the wilderness of solitude and silence and seeking. Seek God’s face and seek God’s heart.

So that is “WHERE” and those are some thoughts to ponder when the wilderness moments come your way. But then, what about WHAT?

  1. WHAT?

What was the Word of the Lord? Simple really: “John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Word from God to the people of John’s day and age was this:

  1. REPENT: In other words, turn away from your sinful behaviour and leave it behind so that you can turn to God.
  2. BE BAPTISED as a sign of your determination to start a brand new life of leaving sin behind and walking with God.
  3. YOU WILL BE FORGIVEN: John preached that if the people of his day would make that decision to REPENT … and cement that decision by BAPTISM … they would experience the washing of God’s forgiveness.

This is an age-old message that never loses its validity. This has always been God’s way. God who longs to be in an unhindered relationship with every human being, loves us too much to force us into that relationship. He loves us so much that he creates us with the freedom to choose.

All that John the Baptist’s Word from God was placing before the people of his day … and which it is still placing before us today is this: Make your choice today! Choose God! Choose Life!

God is not setting out loads of hoops for us to jump through. He is simply placing the choice before us: Here I am. I love you. I hold Life in all its abundance in My hand. But you have to choose to stop looking for Life in all the wrong places … and come to Me.

When Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist 300 years before he arrived on the scene, Malachi highlighted some of the places the people of his day were looking for Life in all the wrong places. We read about them in the Daily Discipleship Readings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

  • Some were looking for Life in sorcery … in magic that would manipulate the powers of the spiritual world in their favour.
  • Some were looking for Life in sexual immorality and adultery … thinking that sexual pleasure would give them abundance.
  • Some were looking for Life in wealth … and they were willing to lie, to underpay their workers, and to take advantage of the vulnerable widows, orphans and foreigners to enrich themselves.

John the Baptist came to call all people … us included … to no longer look for LIFE in these places … but to turn back to God and find true Life in Him and Him alone. How appropriate this call is in this day of:

  • widespread sorcery – where spiritual healers and horoscopes and manipulation abound;
  • immorality – where sexual indulgence is a mainstream form of entertainment;
  • lust for wealth and power – which is pursued through corruption, state capture, fake news, and the oppression of immigrants and asylum-seekers;
  • oppression of workers – where the payment of a minimum wage of R20 per hour is celebrated as some kind of victory for workers. Hello! R20 per hour. Who on earth can live on that?

It is as though John is reminding us that when we pursue LIFE through human means we end up on the road to DEATH instead … and he is issuing a LOUD call to turn back from that road and instead to turn to God so that we can truly be on the road to LIFE. And the good news is that God is ready and waiting to forgive us for our sins.

Through John the Baptist, God was holding out to His people the olive branch of peace.

  1. WHY?

The last question I want to ask of this passage is WHY?

The answer is found, I believe, in the passage Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. Why did John need to come proclaiming this message? Answer: To prepare the way for the coming of Messiah, Jesus.

It is not that Jesus needed the way prepared for Him … it is that people need the way prepared to RECEIVE HIM. A bit like the hymn “Joy to the World” says: “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Because of God’s refusal to overpower our free will, the message of repentance will always precede what Isaiah calls the “salvation of the Lord”.

Repentance prepares the way for the Lord to come into our lives … it fills in the valleys and levels the mountains and straightens the paths so that Messiah can come and do His ministry in our lives unhindered! By repentance we offer Jesus free reign.

I love polishing silver. It was one of my chores as a child. Repentance is like applying the Silvo. Without is, you can rub all you like, the tarnish won’t come off. But apply that Silvo … leave it to stand for a bit … and suddenly the polishing rag does its magic!

When we repent and turn to the Lord He has free reign to save us from our sin and set us firmly on the path to LIFE … to refine us and purify us of all that destroys life … to purify us of all that tarnishes the image of God in our lives.

Repentance opens the door for Jesus to begin His work in our lives … and that work is a lifelong work. As Paul declared in Philippians 1:6 “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” and he prayed that they “may be pure and blameless until the day of Jesus Christ”(v.11) But it all starts here with John’s message! Repent. Turn to God!

Advent 1 HOPE

Luke 21:25-36; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Jeremiah 33:14-17

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. If you have been doing the devotions in  your “Daily Discipleship” Booklet, you would have started on Thursday already … but officially today is the start of Advent.

Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches. It is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for our Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The word “Advent” is a version of the Latin word “adventus” meaning “coming”. Adventus in itself is a translation of the New Testament Greek word parousia, which is commonly used by scholars to specifically refer to the Second Coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) suggested that Christians should recognise three comings of Christ:

  1. in the flesh in Bethlehem,
  2. in our hearts daily, and
  3. in glory at the end of time.

Advent offers us the opportunity to deliberately focus on … and increase in our own hearts … the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah … and to be alert for his Second Coming.

And so it is always part of the tradition that on the first Sunday of Advent we read a Gospel passage in which Jesus predicted His return in glory – His 2nd Coming. This year our reading is from Luke 21.

The part of Luke 21 we read is situated at the end of a long response Jesus was giving to His disciples. They were in Jerusalem and the disciples marveled at the enormous stones in the Temple walls. Jesus replied that a time was coming when not one of those stones would remain on top of another. They would all be torn down. The disciples … quite naturally … ask when that will come to pass … and what would be the signs that these things were about to happen.

In the context of that question Jesus speaks … and it becomes evident that He is mixing together a prophesy about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which in fact happened in AD 66-70) with a prophecy of His 2nd Coming. Both of these cataclysmic events, it would appear, would be foreshadowed by:

  • wars
  • natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and diseases, and
  • cosmic signs

But here is the heart of the matter in Luke 21 for us as 21st Century observers of Advent … more importantly, as 21st Century disciples longing for Jesus to come … here is the heart of the matter:

Jesus who came in the flesh, lived, died and rose again from the dead … IS COMING AGAIN to the earth in great power and great glory.

In His first coming, He gave up the glory and power that was His as God the Son … and He came in weakness and fragility as a baby born to the virgin Mary.

When He returns it will be in the glory and power that He reclaimed when He was raised from the dead and glorified to the Father’s right hand in heaven again.

AWESOME! So how should this affect us today? AI want to highlight two things I believe Jesus indicates in the passage:

  1. CONFIDENT HOPE

In this world of darkness, it is easy to lose hope. When we see footage of wars in Syria, famine in Yemen, bombs exploding on the streets of Mogadishu, an Ebola epidemic in the DRC, radical Islamic militant attacks in Mozambique, earthquakes and tsunami horror in the Pacific Rim, drug resistant super-bacteria and all manner of other horrors … it is easy to lose heart.

The very same signs which Jesus mentioned as being signs that His return was coming closer, can cause us to lose hope.

Yet, Jesus says: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (v.28)

It is as though Jesus is encouraging us … you can choose which way you see this. You can choose to look at these events with despair … or with hope.

Human sin has thrown the world into a state of brokenness from which it will NOT recover until Christ returns and God makes all things new.

The brokenness of the world will only intensify as the end draws nearer. Like birth-pains when a woman is in labour … the groaning of the natural world … the pains and horrors of its falleness will only grow more intense as time goes by.

So, instead of looking at that with horror … we are invited by Jesus to see it as a sign of HOPE … that Christ’s return is nearer now than ever before.

Jesus says: Stand up … lift up your heads … look to me in the midst of the raging and turmoil of this world … and have HOPE!! Cultivate in your heart a JOYFUL EXPECTATION that my coming is nearer now than ever before!

As Advent people, we are called to be a people of CONFIDENT HOPE!

We are also called by Jesus, in this passage, to be a people of CAREFUL HOLINESS!

  1. CAREFUL HOLINESS

In the Biblical sense, to be holy means to be different … to be separated and set apart for God.

Every Christian believer … every disciple of Jesus … is therefore already holy.

When we make the decision to place our faith in Jesus Christ and to entrust our lives in their entirety to Him as Saviour and Master … we are set apart as the adopted children of God … and we therefore have the status of holiness … “set-apartness”.

We are different in status and position.

And for the rest of our lives as believing disciples of Jesus we are simply called to live out that new status of holiness. We are called to live up to who we already are in Christ … the set-apart, holy children of God.

Now, in a word to both the 1st and 21st century Christians, Jesus says, in Luke 21: 34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will come upon you unexpectedly.”

In other words, if we are not careful to choose to live out our HOPE in Jesus through holy lifestyles … we will drift down … pulled by the gravity of the sinful brokenness of the world … into lifestyles of … 3 things:

  1. dissipation: “an overindulgence in sensual pleasures”
  2. drunkenness: “intoxication”
  3. distractions: the word translated by the NIV as anxieties can also be translated as “distractions”

Now I think that reveals the heart of the problem. If we are not facing the tremendous brokenness of this world with our HOPE and faith in Jesus .. .we will turn to all sorts of other methods of escape … ways to distract ourselves from the truth of the brokenness of our world. It may be that we distract ourselves by indulging in physical pleasure … or intoxicating substances … thereby forgetting for a time about the reality of the pain of our world … but they are merely , ultimately, distractions.

Rather than choosing to live like this, Jesus invites us in v. 36, “Be always on the watch, and pray … so that you will be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Now my understanding is that here Jesus has a word of instruction for all His followers throughout time … along with a specific promise to the 1st Century Christians … followed by a promise for us all … including us 21st Century Christians.

Jesus’ invitation is to a lifestyle of holy fellowship with God through watchful prayer.

And His PROMISES were:

  1. To His 1st Century followers: If you live watchfully and prayerfully, you will recognise the signs that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and you will flee in time and “escape all that is about to happen.” Now history proves that this is what happened. The early Christian historians Eusebius and Epiphanius report that, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Jerusalem Christians fled to the Decapolis city of Pella. They saw the signs that Jesus had spoken of and they obeyed His instruction that when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies you will know that its destruction is near, then “FLEE to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the countryside not enter the city.” (Luke 21:20-21) The Christians were watchful … they obeyed the word of Jesus … and they escaped all that was about to happen. Just as Jesus prophesied.
  2. To us all 1st and 21st Century believers … Jesus promises … if you live watchful, prayerful lives … you will be able to stand before the Son of Man. The day is certainly approaching, for ALL of us, when we will meet out Maker face to face. For some of us, it will be through death … for others it may possibly be through the 2nd Coming of Christ during our lifetime … we do not know. But what we know is that the only foundation upon which we may confidently stand before God on that day is our faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us on the cross.

Therefore even now … this very day … this very hour … make it your top priority to keep your relationship with Jesus Christ firm and steadfast.

Do not be careless … be careful! Be careful to live in step with the Spirit of Jesus … who is leading us into all holiness.

Do now be prayerless … be prayerful! Be prayerfully attentive to the Spirit of Jesus … who is leading us into all holiness!

CONCLUSION

Jesus who came in the flesh, lived, died and rose again from the dead … IS COMING AGAIN to the earth in great power and great glory.

In His first coming, He gave up the glory and power that was His as God the Son … and He came in weakness and fragility as a baby born to the virgin Mary.

When He returns it will be in the glory and power that He reclaimed when He was raised from the dead and glorified to the Father’s right hand in heaven again.

AWESOME! So how should this affect us today? It should cause us to live lives of:

CONFIDENT HOPE and CAREFUL HOLINESS