4 ways to cut loose from a secular Christmas

Well, the first Sunday in Advent has come and gone. In four weeks from now Christmas 2015 will be a memory.

Christians often approach Christmas with mixed feelings. The best way I can describe it is a kind of “uneasy excitement”.

On the one hand there is excitement at the prospect of the holiday season, with all that this season entails. Presents, food, nostalgia and you could add to the list. It’s all there.

Then there is the uneasy bit. Why are we uneasy about Christmas? Partly, I think, because deep in our Christian psyche we feel we have sold Christmas to the world for thirty pieces of turkey and mince pies. The “real meaning of Christmas” bit is for many Christians reduced to a religious side show that amounts to no more than a couple of seasonally themed services.

And, if that wasn’t enough, there is the thought of those who happen to live really hard lives – at home or abroad – who won’t fare much better just because it’s Christmas: converted Scrooges are the stuff of Dickens rather than the part of any biblical narrative.

It’s not unusual for our uneasinesses (if there ever was such a word) to combine into an all out dread of the season.

For many of us, the only way to reconcile our conflicting emotions (I want to say “Dickensian dissonance” but it sounds far too pretentious), it seems, is to conclude that “It’s all about the children”.

And so we trudge through crowded shopping malls, queue at Santa’s grottos, pitch up at the carol service, manage to cook roast turkey for a couple of days, sustained by the thought that it’s really a season for children. And then, on 27th December, we breathe a sigh of relief because we feel that new year won’t be anything as difficult to navigate.

There must be a better way to “do” this season.

So what would I suggest?

Well, if you aren’t overcome with despair by reading the above, I would suggest that, whatever else you do this Christmas, you make some priorities.

Firstly, prioritise people.

Why? Because Christmas is all about people. You might say that it is all about Jesus. That of course is true. But the whole point of God becoming flesh in the person of Christ was because God wanted to meet people on their turf. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians sum up Christmas very neatly: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (5.19 KJV).

What plans have you made to reach out to people this Christmas? Who are you inviting to the carol service or Christmas outreach events? If you want to take Christmas back for Jesus, invite someone to a Christmas event. It is far and away the time of year that people are most likely to come to a church event. Why not make the most of it?

Secondly, prioritise prayer.

I know if I am too busy to pray, I am too busy. If we are too busy to pray at Christmas, we are too busy. We have no right – no right – to complain about how the world has hijacked Christmas if we don’t pray. How can anyone be too busy to attend at least one prayer event over the Christmas period?

Thirdly, prioritise praise.

If ever there was a time to rejoice, it is Christmas time. If ever there was a time to give thanks to God, it is in the season that we remember that He sent His Son into the world to save us from our sins. Just read the Christmas story as recorded by Matthew and Luke and you will find angels and people rejoicing.

Finally, remember the poor.

Jesus words “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 23.25), are perhaps more apposite at this time of year than any other. There are all sorts of ways we can bless the poor at Christmas, either by volunteering our time or giving to good causes.

The above might not roll back the secular tide that has engulfed Christmas, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

One of the most poignant scenes in the Christmas story is when the magi arrive at Herod’s palace and Herod calls in the Bible scholars (Matthew 2.3-6). Clearly they understood all the prophecies about Messiah, yet instead of being swept up in what God was doing, they were content to serve a king who was an impostor, an unworthy alternative to the real Messiah.

How tragic it would be if, like the religious scholars in Herod’s palace, we too missed the real point of Christmas and ended up serving the fake secular substitute, created to serve the ends of Mammon.

 

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An Ancient Text For Modern (Or Postmodern) Times

Introduction

2015 has been a year of numerous anniversaries. My parents celebrated fifty years of marriage in 2015. And of course, Elim celebrated its one hundredth birthday.

There were of course other significant anniversaries in 2015 as well. In February 1915, photographs were required on British passports for the first time. The Women’s Institute was founded in 1915.

In June 1815, Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. And, stretching back even further in time, on 19th June 1215, King John signed Magna Carta at Runnymede.

All of these events have had a direct bearing on the way we live today.

History has shaped who we are. Our society is shaped not only by the societal currents of today, but those of yesterday as well.

An ancient text with no relevance for today?

It is against such a background that we should weigh the oft repeated criticism that the Bible, because it is an ancient text, has little relevance to life in the twenty-first century. Historical events and documents referred to above indicate that dismissing something because it lies outside the modern era is a bit reckless and betrays a superficial grasp of how society functions and develops.

In addition to the many instances and ways in which society has been shaped by history, there are the numerous other ways in which life and thought today are informed not just by the recent past, but also by the ancient past.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of other religious faiths. The Quran, for instance, still influences the lives of millions of people today.

Another way in which ancient texts impact upon society today, is found in the ongoing influence of the classical world on contemporary thought.

Take the legal system, for example. The English legal system is based on common law or case law. In Scotland the legal system owes more to the influence of Roman law.

Or military strategy. Military officers in training still pick apart Hannibal’s victory at the battle of Cannae .And you could add the ethical role of the Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Or the influence of Euclid on mathematics.

And how could you fail to recognise the impact of the ten commandments on our legal system and on the personal morality of millions?

The idea that the ancient world or an ancient text has little relevance for life today is simply not borne out by the facts.

Even if it is not irrelevant, why should we believe it?

So given that the Bible is not irrelevant simply because it is an ancient text, why should we believe it?

The most obvious answer is that the Bible is the Word of God. And we know it is the Word of God because of the witness of the Spirit.

Ultimately, the Bible is relevant to twenty-first century life because it is the timeless Word of God.

The witness of the Spirit

How do we know it is God’s Word? We know it is God’s Word because the Holy Spirit has given us the ability to recognise it as God’s Word. Here’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2.12:

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 

This is entirely consistent with what Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit’s role as teacher:

The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14.27; See also John 16.13)

The primary reason we should believe that the Bible is the Word of God is because of the Spirit convincing us that it is the Word of God.

That is what the church has taught for twenty centuries. This is crucial to our understanding of the authority of scripture. We simply cannot recognise its true nature, let alone begin to understand it without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Five additional reasons that support the witness of the Spirit

So we come back to the question of why we should believe that the Bible is the Word of God. What reasons are there beyond our own spiritual experience?

Firstly, there is the faith of the church.

Throughout church history the church – in all its branches – has recognised the Bible as the Word of God. 2 Timothy 3.16 has been taken at face value as a statement of divine inspiration and authority.

This collective witness to the authority of scripture counterbalances the personal nature of our recognition of the Bible as God’s Word through the witness of the Spirit. Far from detracting from our own experience of the Bible, it  acknowledges that our personal conviction based on the Spirit’s witness to God’s Word is confirmed by the church today and throughout history.

Secondly, there is the historical basis of the Bible

The Bible is not just a collection of religious writings. Its events are recorded as having happened at actual times and in actual places. Luke, for example, places the birth of Christ (Luke 2.1-3) and also the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3.1-2) firmly in a historical context.

Additionally, the textual evidence for the New Testament is far stronger than for that of any other piece of ancient literature, historical or otherwise. There are over five thousand eight hundred Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in existence today. If we can’t trust the New Testament as historically authentic, we cannot safely trust any other work of literature from that era or before.

Thirdly, there is the witness to Christ and of Christ

In His life and ministry Jesus fulfilled something like over three hundred prophecies referring to Him in the Old Testament. Given that Jesus had no control, humanly speaking about where He would be born and the details surrounding His death, the fulfilment of prophecy is a very powerful argument for the authority of the Bible (See, for example, Micah 5.2 / Matthew 2.6; Isaiah 53.12 / Matthew 27.38, 57-60 )

Then there is Jesus’ own view of the Bible. He appeals to Old Testament scripture as having divine authority and warns against attempts to tamper with God’s law (for example, Matthew 5.17-20)

The above arguments are powerful reasons in support of the authority of scripture.

However, there are two further arguments that might not carry the theological weight of the two just mentioned, but in their own way they are compelling.

So fourthly, the influence of the Bible on culture, especially on Western culture.

There is no doubt that Bible has had a significant impact on the history of the world, especially the Western world. The sixteenth century reformation unleashed ideas that have had a lasting impact not only on the church, but on Western thought and politics.

The Bible’s influence is not restricted to just those arenas.

Melvyn Bragg, not someone known for His faith, said of the King James Bible: There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible and not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”

Finally, the experience of Christians throughout the world and throughout the ages testifies to the power of the Bible as God’s Word.

Millions of people today and for millennia have turned to the Psalms for comfort in difficult times. Millions have had their lives changed by the gospels and New Testament epistles.

Actor David Suchet, famous for his role as Poirot, recounts how he read Romans in a Gideon Bible in a hotel room and his life was transformed. And how many more could testify to that kind of encounter with God through His Word?

The Bible continues to impact and influence the lives of many. Because it is an ancient text in no way makes it irrelevant. Age and relevancy do not depend on each other, as we saw earlier.

The Bible still has the power to change lives because it is still the Word of God.

I’ll close with a quote from Lee Mack. When Mack was the castaway on Desert Island Discs and was told that he would have the Bible to read on the imaginary desert island, responded:

I’m glad you get the Bible, because I would read the Bible. I think it’s quite odd that people like myself, in their forties, quite happy to dismiss the Bible, but I’ve never read it. I always think that if an alien came down and you were the only person they met, and they said, ‘What’s life about? What’s earth about? Tell us everything,’ and you said, ‘Well, there’s a book here that purports to tell you everything. Some people believe it to be true; some people [do] not believe it [to be] true.’ ‘Wow, what’s it like?’ and you go, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never read it.’ It would be an odd thing wouldn’t it? So, at the very least, read it.”

It would be an odd thing indeed to not to read a book which purports to tell you everything. It would be an odd thing indeed not to read it because you concluded that it was old and therefore not relevant to modern life.

The surprising reality of basic Christianity

You might have heard the story of the national chain that was fined for selling high vis vests. They were fined because their particular brand of high vis vests weren’t high vis! They didn’t glow in the dark.

I wonder how “high vis” the particular brand of Christianity is that we have adopted as the real thing? Indeed, what is basic Christianity? Good question. And no doubt you could come up with more than a few answers.

In Philippians 2 Paul makes an appeal to the believers at Philippi. His desire is that they should have the same mindset as Christ.

And then he quotes what is probably a song, about Christ, that was sung in the early church.

Firstly, Jesus, before His incarnation, had everything. He was and is equal with God. Yet He used none of what He had for His own advantage. None of it (v.6)

Secondly, says Paul, He made Himself nothing (v.7). The older translations say ‘No reputation’. He went from everything to nothing. From being the agent of creation and being adored by angels, He went, by choice, to a status of no reputation. None. Nothing.

Thirdly, He became in nature a servant (v.7). You could translate that word servant, slave. The Son of God became a slave.

And then He died.

Using none of your assets or gifts to give you the edge. Making yourself nothing. Becoming a servant. That’s basic Christianity.

And it was this Jesus that God highly exalted.

The mindset that says “It’s not about me”. A mindset that is more concerned about your well being than my reputation. A mindset that is more eager for the opportunity to serve than for a chance to lead. That is basic Christianity. That is the Christianity that God blesses. That is Jesus-shaped Christianity.

Scriptures like Philippians 2 can seem like something for people who are pretty mature, experienced Christians. But that is not the case. The reality is that what Paul says is actually basic Christianity. That’s the reality. Surprising? Perhaps.

Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Philippians 2.3-4 MSG

4 Steps to keep you flying high

Foster’s Scottish Oddities might not be on your reading list or your Christmas present list, but it does have some interesting stories. There is one about a stoat and an eagle.

The story goes that a gamekeeper and his friend were out walking in Cape Wrath in Sutherland, just a few days into January 1931. Their walk was magnificently interrupted by a golden eagle swooping down and picking up a stoat in its talons. That must have been quite an impressive sight.

What happened next was probably unexpected. The eagle began to lose altitude. It fell rapidly in a kind of cork screw motion to the ground. The gamekeeper and his friend ran to investigate. The great bird was dead. Then, from beneath its regal carcase, the stoat emerged, completely unscathed. Further investigation revealed that the stoat had bitten into the eagle’s neck, with fatal effect.

It goes against the laws of nature – and perhaps natural justice – that a creature as beautiful and powerful as a golden eagle should perish from the bite of a stoat. In this case that is exactly what happened. And it happened because the eagle picked up something that possibly seemed insignificant and manageable, yet proved to be deadly.

Paul comments in 2 Corinthians 2 that he has forgiven someone in the church at Corinth, and that the Corinthians should too, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes (vv.10-11).

Unforgiveness gives Satan a tactical advantage in spiritual conflict. He knows that the presence of unforgiveness in our lives closes us down to living in God’s forgiveness (Matthew 6.15, 18.32-35).

The knock on effect of unforgiveness is that it messes up the effectiveness of our prayer lives. Jesus outlines the impact of unforgiveness on our prayers in Matthew 11.22-26:

 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins (v.26).

Mountain moving faith can be undermined by a mole of unforgiveness.

So how do we live in forgiveness?

Firstly, check your heart.

“If you hold anything against anyone”. Sometimes we need to check our hearts with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, remember you are a child of grace.

In Ephesians 4.32 Paul says:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Just. As. In Christ. God. Forgave. You.

We forgive because we are forgiven.

Thirdly, choose to forgive.

Forgiveness is a decision not an emotion. That’s why Jesus and the apostles were able to command forgiveness. Many people fail to forgive because they think forgiveness is an emotion.

Finally, don’t let changing emotions undermine your decision.

Emotions can change like the weather. If you were on an important journey, you would not allow the weather to change your destination. Make the freedom of forgiveness your desired destination and don’t let the changing weather of your emotions cause you to abandon that journey.

You were called to fly. How tragic it would be if you allowed something trivial that you picked up along the way to cause you to become grounded. Ditch the stoat of unforgiveness and keep flying high.

I didn’t mean to hurt God

I can’t imagine that anyone ever really intends to hurt God. Atheists might rail against a God whom they do not believe exists. I am sure that if they knew Him, they would revise their opinions. Even in our moments of deep pain when we question God, our intention is not to hurt Him so much as it is to make sense of our lives.

Some people, of course, think that it is preposterous to talk about hurting God. How could puny human creatures hurt the creator of the universe?

And yet we can hurt God. Unless you try to dilute some very explicit statements in scripture, the possibility of hurting God is a real risk.

And we do hurt God. Probably more often than we think.

In Ephesians 4.29-30 Paul challenges us with these words:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

As a preacher, I have often quoted verse 29. And I have often quoted verse 30. The former, I have used as a basis to encourage and challenge Christians to speak in a way that encourages and builds up their brothers and sisters. The latter, as a warning against upsetting the Holy Spirit.

What only struck me very recently is that both verses are intimately connected. The and at the beginning of verse 30 is the giveaway. It connects speaking in a way that builds up others with preserving the health of our relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I probably knew intuitively that our speech impacted on our relationship with the Spirit. But reading these verses again just recently proved to be somewhat of a light bulb moment: how I speak to you affects my relationship with Him.

The question then arises “What happens when the Holy Spirit is grieved?” That is a hard question to answer. Why? Because, as far as I am aware the scriptures, certainly the New Testament scriptures, do not explicitly indicate what happens when the Spirit is grieved. Genesis 6.6 (KJV) and Hebrews 3.10 and 3.17 (both KJV) mention God being grieved. The word used in Hebrews, however, has a much stronger connotation than being upset or even offended. Anger is more than likely its meaning.

What is clear is that the way we speak to and about others can put distance in our relationship with the Holy Spirit or preserve intimacy with Him. (Notice too that intimacy with the Spirit is what we start out with and we can become distant. For many, the default in our relationship with the Spirit is distance and intimacy is something to be attained.)

Making that connection between verses 29 and 30 means I cannot neatly file verse 29 away under some heading like “Healthy relationships within the body of Christ” and verse 30 under something akin to “How to walk in the Spirit”, because, fact is, they both belong together.

We have closeness with the Spirit, and that closeness is preserved and strengthened by the words we use in our interactions with one another.

Of course we don’t mean to hurt God. Ephesians 4.29-30 shows us how we can avoid doing just that.

I’ll leave you with The Message rendering of those crucial verses:

Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. 30 Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.

The Early Church’s Best Kept Secret

I wonder how many times you have found yourself in discussion about the secret of the early church’s phenomenal success? The dramatic way in which what was perceived as little more than a Jewish sect completely turned the Roman Empire upside down in three hundred years is impressive by any standard.

There are all sorts of explanations for this incredible turnaround.

The miraculous witness of its apostles and evangelists. The love that was the hallmark of the Christian church. The holy boldness. The willingness to embrace martyrdom. The passionate love for Jesus.

All of these are undoubtedly key factors.

I want to suggest another factor that is related to the above, but deserves mention on its own: encouragement.

Encouragement is mentioned over thirty times in the New Testament. It is linked with another key concept: oikodomeo, the Greek word usually translated “building up”. When you combine the proliferation of these terms and concepts and their connection with the prophetic, you begin to realise that they reveal something very fundamental to the life of the early church: it was awash with encouragement.

A quick search on Bible Gateway or some such Bible search engine will demonstrate the viral nature of encouragement in the New Testament church and the value placed on it by the apostles.

Apart from recognising the value of encouragement in some sort of formal or academic way, how can we begin to develop an environment of encouragement in our own churches, small groups and families and friendship networks?

Firstly, we can strategise encouragement.

That might sound like a grand statement, or even a clinical statement. After all, encouragement is all about “heart” rather than strategic plans, is it not?

Well, consider these scriptures. In Ephesians 6.22 and in Colossians 4.8, Paul told the churches at Ephesus and Colosse that he was sending Tychicus to them for the purpose of encouraging them. Not to instruct them. Or counsel them. Or in a consultancy capacity. Important as all these were and are – and of course Tychicus might have ended up ministering in any or all of those ways – but his priority was encouragement.

Sometimes we, especially we who are leaders, need to think strategically about how we deliver encouragement to the people we serve.

Secondly, we can speak encouragement.

Paul says in Ephesians 4.29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen.”

If we could all manage to go one full day every week when we speak only what builds people up, think of how we would change the worlds we live in!

Encouragement and building people up is accomplished by the words we speak. Of course the reverse is true as well, we can tear people down by the words we speak. The power of words. Keeping a rein on our tongues and using them to speak words of encouragement releases the kind of divine power that builds people’s lives in such a way that they glorify Christ.

Finally, we can stay connected to the Spirit.

The Spirit is the ultimate encourager. In John 14.16 and 16.7 Jesus refers to Him as the Paraclete. That Greek term is very hard to translate in a single English word, its meaning is so rich. Various translations offer counsellor, advocate, comforter and helper. Of course the Spirit is all of those – and more! Without trying to enter the debate, I simply want to point out that the word Paraclete is from the word translated encouragement elsewhere in the New Testament.

Acts 9.31 says “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the church] increased in numbers.”

The Holy Spirit is the great encourager. The more we allow Him to fill our lives and His church, the more encouraged we will be. And perhaps the early church’s best kept secret will be secret no longer.