Farewell 2016

For many, Christmas is a bitter sweet experience. For some it is more bitter than sweet. Somehow the Christmas season brings a heightened expectation of life. The real Christmas story has well and truly been mugged by Western materialism and sentimentalism. Eternal hope has all but been displaced by seasonal hype. And it’s created an environment that is not an easy one for people who come to the end of the year carrying all sorts of losses and disappointments.

So as we approach the end of the year, how do we say “Goodbye” to 2016?

If you have had a “good” year you might not want to say “Goodbye” to 2016! But you still have to! The best thing you can do is to thank God for the way He has blessed you.

But what about those for whom 2016 has been a year of difficulty or a year of loss?

Realistically, changing the date from 2016 to 2017 doesn’t necessarily change anything. But the season of Christmas and new year is a good time to look to God for His help to leave behind those things that are causing us hurt and pain.

How do we do that?

In Psalm 37, David was clearly struggling with something that was painful to him. Stated briefly, his issue seemed to be that God was blessing bad people while he was struggling. As the Psalm unfolds we see how David began to walk out of his difficulty into the clear light of God’s revelation.

First of all he faced his pain.

Verse one says : Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. That was the issue for David: people who are doing wrong seem to be doing well. And perhaps he wasn’t doing so well.

That might not be your issue, but whatever your issue, you can’t begin to move beyond it until you acknowledge it.

Secondly, he developed a godly perspective.

If you read through all forty verses of the Psalm you will be able to trace a whole line of counsel that shifts David’s focus on to God.

Let me give you six ways in which he began to develop a godly perspective:

Develop an eternal view (vv.1-2)

Trust –and do good (v.3)

Enjoy God for who He is (v.4)

Commit your way to Him (v.5)

Be still and wait for Him (v.7)

Manage your negative emotions (vv.7-8)

If over the next few months you gave yourself to developing the kind of perspective that David developed, your outlook would be changed and your heart would begin to find healing.

Finally, he embraced God’s promises.

We often say that we don’t know what the future holds. That is true. We don’t know details about future events.

Yet in another sense we do know what the future holds. How? Because God has given us promises about the future.

Here are five that are set out in Psalm 37:

Protection and plenty (vv.18-19)

Ability to bless others (v.21)

Solid ground (vv.23-24)

Provision (v.25)

Security (vv.27-28)

The call to let go of the past is also a call to lay hold of the future.

I hope 2016 has been a good year for you. If not, I hope that by God’s grace you will leave the year with a fresh perspective and a strong grip on the promises of God.

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Instead of writing to Father Christmas, why not write a letter to the Father of Lights?

“What do you want for Christmas?” is a question most of us will both ask and be asked in the run up to 25th December. No doubt more than a few have already sent off their annual letter to Father Christmas.

And it’s big business. The Retail Gazette reckons that people in the UK will spend a whopping £73 billion – yes billion not million – on Christmas this year.

In case you weren’t aware, the Bible doesn’t mention Father Christmas, even though he has connections with the St. Nicholas of church history.

It does however refer to our heavenly Father as the Father of Lights. James, Jesus’ brother is the one, the only one who uses this title for God:

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.(James 1.16-18)

Here’s my suggestion: amongst all the giving and receiving that you do this Christmas, why not ask the Father of Lights for a special gift?

How can you ask and be sure you will receive?

First of all, ask with a right motive.

James again:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4.3).

It’s possible to ask for something for the wrong reason. God will not give you a “something” that revolves around your pleasure!

Secondly, ask for what is in line with God’s revealed will.

Here’s what Jesus’ disciple John said about asking God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5.14-15)

Wow! If what we ask for is in line with His will, we know that He hears us, and because we know He hears us we know we will receive what we asked for!

The Amplified Bible drives home the point even more strongly:

This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that [c]if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us. 15 And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him.

The question therefore is how does what you are looking for line up with God’s will?

There are lots of things we don’t know about God’s will. But there are lots of things we do know about God’s will. That He wants us to be full of the Spirit. That He wants us to be more like Jesus. That He wants us to have a godly influence on the people around us. That He wants our families to know His love. That He wants to give us wisdom.

Finally, what result would a positive answer to your request produce?

The prayer Jesus taught His disciples, that we know as the Lord’s prayer gives us a guide to the kind of results we should look for from our prayers:

  • Extension of God’s influence – your kingdom come, your will be done
  • Needs being met – give us this day our daily bread
  • Strengthening our relationship with God and others – forgive us our sins as we forgive
  • Prevailing in spiritual conflict – lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Why not get writing to the Father of Lights? After all, it’s not like He’s keeping a big brother-like eye on you to make sure you’ve been a good boy or girl.

No, He gives to all without finding fault (James 1.5) .

Mary: when God puts your life out of shape

Even in a culture that is not very familiar with the Bible, the outline of the Christmas story is still known to many people.

Even those long disconnected from church recognise the Joseph – Mary – baby – donkey sequence (Even though the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey). And they might even remember that the baby was Jesus.

Of course, some of us know not only the historical detail but the spiritual significance of that detail and how it ties up with the prophecies made about Messiah by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

What we can easily miss, however, is the profound impact that these events had upon Joseph and Mary and how the entrance of God into the world turned their world upside down. It put their lives out of shape.

Firstly Mary was physically put “out of shape”.

It goes without saying that pregnancy affects a woman physically! Some of the changes can be seen. Others are unseen, but no less felt. Carrying a baby changes your body. It changes your world.

When we are “carrying” God’s presence and purpose it changes us. It changes us as individuals. It changes churches.

Secondly, Mary’s relationships with people were out of shape

Joseph didn’t greet Mary’s pregnancy with wonder and delight. It was rather a mixture of sadness and disappointment. And then a plan of action: divorce (Matthew 1.19).

You can hardly blame Joseph for thinking the worst. Put yourself in his shoes. Would you believe Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy? It was unprecedented.

Can you begin to imagine what the other people in her village thought when they found out that she was pregnant? Can you begin to imagine how Mary felt as the gossip spread?

Her whole personal and social world was descending into chaos.

Why? Because no-one understood what was really happening. Joseph eventually understood because an angel intervened.

The difficulty that Mary faced was that there was no precedent for what was going on in her life.

When God is at work in our lives, it can result in misunderstanding. Sometimes that misunderstanding is because people have no template for what God is doing. Some people eventually get it – because God intervenes. Some don’t.

It is hard to handle misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is frustrating, even hurtful.

But it’s part of the price we pay for “carrying” God’s purpose.

How do you handle misunderstanding?

1 Peter 2.23 says that when Jesus was misunderstood and rejected that He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.

Sometimes you just have to leave it with the Lord.

Mary’s prospects for the future were out of shape

We can’t in any way claim to know what Mary’s hopes and dreams for the future were. I think it is safe to say, however, that she probably didn’t envisage having a baby out of wedlock (Luke 1.31-35) miles away from home (Luke 2.4-5). Being treated like a criminal by Herod and end up in Egypt for two years as a refugee (Matthew 2.13-18).

When you are a vehicle for what God wants to do, you might be surprised at some of the places He drives you to!

Sometimes we talk about the future as if we have control over it when we don’t!

What’s your dream? What if God told you to abandon your dream? What if God’s priority is not for us to have a clear view of what He wants us to do in the future, but instead to carry His presence in the present – and let Him shape the future how He wants?

When God begins to do something new in our lives or wants to do something new in the world, the impact brings dislocation. Our lives are put out of shape.  When that happens, we often find ourselves wondering if this really is God.

In Mary and Joseph’s case, it really was God at work.

And if God’s purpose pressed their lives out of shape, don’t be surprised if the work of His Spirit has the same impact on you.

One word that sums up Christmas

I suppose if most of us were asked for a word that best sums up Christmas – apart from “Jesus” – many of us might offer the word “gift” or some derivative like “give” or “giving”. And I am sure some religious soul would come up with “turkey” or “Santa Claus”. There’s always one!

I want to offer a different word that captures something of the spirit of the first Christmas, if not Christmas in the present day in the Western world.

The word? Trust. Let me explain.

You might already be racing ahead and thinking of how God trusted Mary and Joseph with His Son. Well, that might seem to be true from a human perspective. But I am going to leave that for you to ponder, lest this suggestion be seen to detract from God’s omniscience: He knew exactly, it could be argued, how Mary and Joseph would respond therefore, it is inaccurate to say that God the Father had to exercise trust in human beings when He sent His Son into the world. I have much sympathy with that argument.

No, the trust that I am thinking of is the trust that some of the central characters needed that first Christmas. They needed it to follow where God was leading and what He was doing in entering the world in the person of His Son Jesus.

It goes without saying that Mary’s calling as the mother of Christ required huge trust. She might have had a visit from an angel, but don’t kid yourself for one moment that it meant that any uncertainty disappeared or that she didn’t feel any pain from the gossip that was sparked by the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Trust was also required of Joseph. He might have been reassured by a supernatural experience about his fiancee’s supernatural pregnancy, but that was only the beginning of something much bigger. A journey to Bethlehem – at the worst possible time for Mary. A journey into the unfamiliar and undesired location that was Egypt. And then a journey back to Nazareth.

The amazing thing is that behind all of those stories and “trust points”, God was working to a plan, for, through what seemed like unforeseen circumstances, the scriptures were being fulfilled.

I could add the experience of the Magi to make my case, but it’s not necessary.

Trust is everywhere in the nativity stories.

What is my point? Simply, amongst the many things the Christmas story teaches us – many of cosmic significance – it teaches us to trust God and it teaches us that we can trust God.

You can trust God. Whatever is going on in your life or your world this Christmas, you can trust God. And in all of those unforeseen circumstances, God is somehow in His infinite wisdom fulfilling a plan that somehow has cosmic significance. Whatever you do as we approach Christmas, trust the One whom Christmas is all about. Trust Him, whatever is going on in your life at this moment. Trust Him, because you can.

Happy Christmas.

The Wisdom of Anna: Drawing a line under the past – not the future

Barbers are wonderful people. Part psychologist, part priest, part agony aunt or uncle, they are never short of a bit of human insight. Or a good story. My barber told me a story on my last visit which I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The story is about a man who wanted to make sure that his sideburns were even. (Anyone that has ever had this facial decoration will understand the man’s concern). So concerned was he, that he made his girlfriend lap a tape measure around his head to ensure they were equal. Still not satisfied, he then applied a spirit level to ensure they were level. But to no avail. Eventually he consulted my barber. The barber’s analysis was not what he expected. He told him that it wasn’t his sideburns that were uneven, but his ears!

There are some things in life that no matter how hard we try to fix, they will never measure up. There are some things that are the way they are and we simply have to trust God and move on.

Anna, who met the infant Jesus when He was presented in the temple, was faced with that challenge.

The best translations and the most contemporary scholarship tell us that Anna had been a widow for eighty-four years (Luke 2.37). Prior to that, she had been married for seven years.

She was probably about twenty-one when her husband died. We don’t know how he died. We do know that Anna’s life changed forever. Married for seven years. A widow for eighty-four years.

How easy it would have been for Anna to have concluded that her life did not measure up the way it should, and sunk into seclusion and self-pity.

Not Anna. By God’s grace, the tragedy that she experienced did not rob her of a future that was faithful and fruitful. She drew a line under her past, when many might have been tempted to draw a line under their future.

How can we make sure that we don’t allow unexpected and unwanted life experiences to rob us of a future that is faithful and fruitful?

Firstly, expect to find God in the change that has come about in your life.

Anna experienced a shift from a home centred life to a temple centred life (Luke 2.37). Things changed. And God was in that change. Expect to find God in changed circumstances. If we have an expectation of finding God in change, it gives us confidence to embrace the change that is inevitable.

Secondly, expose the idol of a fantasy life.

Anna could have spent the next eighty-four years after she was widowed looking for a rerun of her seven years of marriage. If she did harbour that desire, she never allowed it to become strong enough to detract from the new thing God was doing in her life.

It is so easy when we have lost something good, or haven’t attained what we had hoped for to get into “should be” thinking. “I should be a millionaire by now”. “I should be married”. “I should have a more loving husband / wife”. “My children should be more spiritual”. “I should have a bigger church”. “I should be happier”. I should, I should, I should. And we miss what God is doing because at a subconscious level we don’t really believe we could meet Him in what we perceive to be our deficient lives. In truth, “should be”, inasmuch as it displaces God and His purpose from our lives, is an idol masquerading as a dream.

Finally, get ready for some Holy Spirit inspired excitement.

Anna found herself in the temple at just the right time. She gave thanks to God. Then she went and told all her friends (v.38)!  At one hundred and five years of age, she was at the temple. She was right in the thick of what God was doing. And then she was off to tell everyone – perhaps all the seventy-somethings in the youth group. Who’d have thought!

That’s what it’s like when you throw yourself into God’s purpose for your life. It’s far better than you could ever design it for yourself.

It’s what happens when you draw a line under your past. It happens when you refuse to draw a line under your future. It happens when you dare to believe that you can meet God in your less than perfect world.

Missing out on Christmas: 3 ways your professed “faith” can cause you to miss out on what God is doing

Pointless is a television programme beloved by an average of 3.6 million viewers who tune in every day. I’m not sure if it is the less intellectual, or more intellectual, BBC answer to Countdown, or just something completely different.

I’m not going to waste any more of your time discussing the merits of television programmes. However, as I was about to preach the Sunday sermon, I had this thought that I have since refined a bit.

If a Pointless question was to name all the characters in the nativity stories, would one character or one set of characters have a zero score? Undoubtedly, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would score very highly. Shepherds would be right up there too. No-one could forget the kings from the East. Angels? Probably. The innkeeper might get a mention. And it is hard to believe that Herod could be overlooked.

One group that, sadly, might return a pointless score are the chief priests and teachers of the law.

I say sadly, because with all the knowledge they had they should have been right in the thick of things. They should have been the first to the manger in Bethlehem. They had more inside knowledge than anyone else, with the exception of Joseph and Mary. They didn’t have angelic visitations, like the shepherds, or stars in the sky like the wise men. They had the scriptures. And it is clear from Matthew 2 that they understood how to interpret the Messianic prophecies.

How come they missed out?

We are not told. Three possible reasons suggest themselves.

Firstly, it is possible that they had given in to a climate of fear.

Verse 3 of Matthew 2 says that Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him when he heard from the Magi that a king had been born. Everyone was afraid, because they knew how Herod would react to any potential threat to his throne: with unrestrained violence. Verses 16-18 of the same chapter prove that they had a right to be fearful.

When we give in to fear, there is a real possibility that we miss out on what God is doing.

Push against fear! Don’t let it pin you down and hem you in.

Secondly, there is a real possibility that not only the religious leaders of the nation but the nation as a whole had experienced a collapse of hope.

These religious leaders lived through an era that ancient historians describe as the fourth major crisis of the Jewish people. That period saw the land of Israel occupied by the Romans, with Herod reigning as a kind of puppet king.

The prophets had prophesied that Messiah would come. That God would restore His people and bring His kingdom. Instead, the nation had experienced a series of crises ever since the return from Babylon. And Roman occupation was just the latest.

It is easier to believe that hope had been seriously damaged than to believe that it stilled fuelled the religious life of the people or their religious leaders.

When we lose hope, or when hope becomes damaged, it can breed a cautious approach to God. It can dampen expectation. Don’t let your hope collapse!

Finally, it’s very possible that the religious leaders had become just too comfortable.

They had status. They had the temple. They had the synagogue. They had carved out an important and influential corner in the life of Israel. Why did they need to leave the capital to go and check out some spiritual speculation that these gentile magi were promoting?

Sometimes we miss out on what God is doing because we don’t want to leave the comfort of the safe religious world we have designed for ourselves.

The chief priests and teachers of the law did not have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God was doing; it was happening just six miles down the road. And neither do you have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God is doing, because He is working all around you and wants to work through you.

It’s sad that people who knew so much missed out on so much. And it would be sadder still if we didn’t learn from their experience.

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.