New Churchcentral Blog October 6th, 2015

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Have you stalled in your evangelism? May 10th, 2013

I’d passed my test the day before. The first in the Lower Sixth to do so, and with only five minors, I’m pleased to tell you. I was the bee’s knees. Utterly confident, with Top-Gun sunglasses in place and chewing gum in the mouth, I cruised round the corner in front of the lads in year above, pushing my mum’s dark green Ford Ka to the max. The engine roared. So did the crowds. It couldn’t have gone better.

And then I stalled.

Nightmare. I can still hear the jeers today.

We’ve all been there haven’t we?! Driving along, quite swimmingly, even impressively (especially if you’re in a Ka), and things are going well. It’s a smooth journey, the car is doing what it’s meant to, you’re doing what you’re meant to, and you edge nearer and nearer to your destination almost without thinking. Then, perhaps, you slow down, perhaps there’s a hill to climb, and suddenly, often without warning, there’s a chug chug chug, and then silence. You’ve stalled.

Stalling in our evangelism

If you’re like me, then you might recognise this not only in your driving, but in your evangelism. Let me explain…

Like the smooth journey in a car, we often have initial conversations with friends, with family, that actually go okay! They find out we’re a Christian, and they aren’t appalled at it! We talk to them about our testimony, and they’re intrigued by it! We show them there’s reasonable evidence for being a Christian, and they understand it! We invite them to something, and they enjoy it! God’s at work, doing what he’s meant to be. We’re giving it a go and speaking for Jesus, doing what we’re meant to be. Of course it might take a long time, like any journey in a Ford Ka, but often we’re moving along quite steadily to where we want to get to. Our friends are genuinely interested. We’re on a journey. We’re feeling good and our engine roars, perhaps our Christian friends look on, and they roar with approval too.

And then a little hill comes in the way. Perhaps a time where we don’t see the person for a while. Perhaps busyness gets in the way, and we forget to get back in touch with our friends. Perhaps the Alpha course finishes, the questions have been answered. Or we just reach a point where we don’t know where to go next to move them on in their journey. Things slow down. There’s a chug chug chug, and then silence. We’ve stalled.

Can you think of opportunities that have stalled like this? I can. Praise the Lord for his grace and power that means that over my time as a Christian I have friends and family who have asked their questions, heard talks, read some of the gospels with me, gone to church, gone on Alpha, gone on Christianity Explored, been healed, gone to mission events, debated long into the night, sung praise to Jesus, noticed a difference in my life, prayed, searched. One even told me they thought that the gospels are true, that Jesus is alive and that they can’t see any objections to the message of Christianity. And yet, at least from what I can guess, none of these folks are Jesus-loving, truth-believing, church-serving, gospel-spreading Christians today. It’s all come to a stand-still. A cross-roads. Chug chug chug. Then silence. We’ve stalled.

And if I’m honest, that annoys me. They seem so close, and yet so far. Is there any way I can bring these people to Jesus?

Can these journeys restart?

Thanks to some extremely helpful teaching from evangelist and author Michael Ots, I’ve been captured this week by one world-changing idea. One top tip for when you stall? When you’re wondering what is stopping seemingly keen and engaged and interested people from becoming a Christian? You’ll never guess. Ready? It was this:

Ask them.

Simply ask them!

However long it’s been, however poor you’ve been at keeping it on the agenda, however long it’s been since you were in touch, however hard you find talking about Jesus, ask them! Could you simply ask them a question? Instead of dropping in awkward Jesus-links at every opportunity like I so often do, instead of forcing things, could we take a step-back, and ask them?

“We’ve chatted about this before, what is that stopping you from becoming a Christian?” “So where are you are you up to with your thoughts about Jesus?” “If there’s one reason why you aren’t a Christian, what would it be?” “What do you think about Jesus nowadays?”

The question itself hardly matters, but one that specific enough to move things on and cause a seeker to reflect, to revisit older ideas and conversations, reminding them that they were once so interested, yet open enough to avoid forcing our own agenda or ideas about where someone is at. And when they answer, it enables us to have a conversation, plant some seeds, pray more specifically, understand our friends more, be genuine with them and real, asking their thoughts and opinions not forcing a pre-planned three-point outline on them at every opportunity. If things have stalled, and you’re not sure where to go next, ask!

It’s not revolutionary. It’s not rocket science. But it’s open. It’s honest. It’s genuine. It’s loving. It shows a respect for the other person. It’s light. It’s not-intense. It can be done in a car, over coffee, on the phone, in the office, at the cinema, on a jog, at the supermarket. And more importantly, I can actually think of some people right now who I could do this with. It excites me. It helps me believe again that they might come to Jesus.

Who are the people that you could ask a question? Just imagine the opportunities, the conversations, if you asked three friends! Let’s not be crippled by the chug, chug, chug and the silence. Let’s ask – gently, weakly. And let’s see what happens!

 

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Christians Against Poverty April 17th, 2013

 

Even the most cursory review of scripture reveals God’s immense care for the poor; His desire to see the needs of the oppressed, hungry, naked and destitute met and their cause upheld. This concern was lived out through Jesus’ ministry and is also therefore central in the activities of His church.

One of the ways we are seeking to live this out as a church is by partnering with Christians Against Poverty and Grace Church in Stirchley/Cotteridge to run a debt counselling centre here in Birmingham.

The centre has been running for 6 months and we are now working with a number of clients across the city.

As part of Churchcentral’s week of prayer this week, let’s be praying for the CAP Centre. Although there are many specific areas and situations which need God’s intervention, there are basically three things which if our clients receive, their lives will be utterly transformed:

1.      For our clients to find hope, forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ

2.      For our clients to break out of unmanageable debt

3.      For our clients to find community in the church

It’s wonderful that our God is committed to those in severe need, as well as willing and able to answer our prayers! It’s also great that CAP and the local church are able to offer these things to people in great need here in Birmingham.

If you would like more information or to receive our CAP prayer newsletter please email birminghamwest@capuk.org

Fasting April 14th, 2013

Fasting

The Christian life is a life defined by joy. However, it is also a life marked by discipline. Just as in any human relationship we must discipline ourselves to enjoy that relationship fully, the same is true of our relationship with God.

Fasting- abstaining from food for a period of time- is such a discipline.

Fasting is a funny one as there is no explicit command in the Bible to tell us that we must fast. However, it is just assumed that we will do it. Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words- ‘when you fast…’ not ‘if you fast’ (Matthew 6:16) and it is a practice that Bile heroes in the Old and New Testament thrived off- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Paul, even Jesus himself.

If you’ve not heard my sermon on this, download it from the website, but this blog post should go into a bit more detail on the practical ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of fasting.

Why should we fast?

Maybe the best way to answer this question is to ask why people in the Bible fasted. Here is a non comprehensive list:

1)     To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:24-27, 2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:1-3)

2)     Repentance (Joel 2:12-14, Jonah 3:5, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Daniel 9:16-19)

3)     Seeking answer to specific prayers (2 Samuel 12:22-23, Ezra 8:21, Joel 1:13-14, Esther 4:3)

It is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that fasting can be practised wrongly as well. It shouldn’t be directed towards people, to impress them or make you look very pious (Matthew 6:16-18), it shouldn’t just be performed as a religious duty just because it’s the done thing either (Zec 7:4-5) and just because you’re fasting it doesn’t mean that you can stop obeying God in other areas! (Isaiah 58:1-11)

Basically, the kind of fasting God rewards does not just involve going without food, but it involves a specific attitude: a desire for God.

In Psalm 109, David describes one of the times when he is fasting (109:10), and his motivation is clear:

‘My eyes fail,
looking for my God.’ (Ps 109:3)

 True fasting, it seems, is not fasting done to impress people, not even fasting done primarily to get stuff off God, it comes from a deep desire for God himself.

And this is the result of true fasting, as Isaiah makes clear in Isaiah 58:9:

‘Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.’

 This is the amazing thing about fasting, its reward is the most valuable thing of all: the presence of God. Hearing his voice saying that He is right here by our side.

So you’re sold? Good. But how do we do it?

How should we fast?

I’ll break this down into a few other questions to help:

1)     Does a fast have to be a food-fast?

Fasting is nearly always going without food in the Bible. People often ask though, ‘can I fast something other than food?’ Of course you can. You can do or not do what you want (within reason) and taking a break from things like television, music, social media sites or computer games might be a good idea sometimes. However, I’d encourage you that if you want to fast to do it the way the Bible suggests. I’ve always found that there is something about going without food that complements seeking after God. There is something about physical hunger that mirrors the spiritual hunger we feel (or want to feel) when we fast.

2)     What counts as food though?

Is toothpaste food? What about a milk shake? How about chewing gum? Soup? Muslims fasting during Ramadan won’t let anything pass their lips and some Christians seem to get themselves in a similar state of legalism about fasting. Basically, you don’t have to fast and the manner in which you fast is largely up to you. This is a matter of your heart to seek God, he is much more concerned about your heart than whether you inadvertently swallow a fly or start munching a biscuit because you forgot you were fasting.

For me, I avoid things that I would normally count as food and be reasonably relaxed about the types of drink I have. I would adopt as many breath freshening methods as possible as well (if you don’t know why, try fasting and breathing on people at the end of the day, you’ll soon find out!)

 3)     What should I do while fasting?

I have fasted for several days in my life that I am almost certain have had no spiritual benefit at all. Some have been spent working so solidly that I forgot to eat, other times I was ill! Not wanting to sound repetitive, but fasting is not just an external action, it is a way of seeking God. Therefore, I would doubt the effectiveness of fasting and simply missing lunch and dinner to put in extra time at work.

Prayer is fasting’s perfect partner, but I would also spend time reading God’s word when I’m fasting and spend other time quietly, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Remember fasting is about seeking God. One of the reasons its helpful is that it frees up time to do just that.

I find it helpful to extend my morning quiet time instead of having breakfast and to go for a walk during my lunch break and sometimes at dinner time as well to pray. Not eating can actually free up about 2 hours of your day; my advice would be to use this time wisely.

4)     How long should I fast?

Again this is up to you. Some people suggest starting by just fasting one meal, but again there is no biblical precedent for this. An averagely healthy human being can go at least 3 weeks without food without suffering any lasting damage, so a day is not going to kill you! Its not easy though. My advice would be to start with a day. There may never be a need to do a longer fast or you may feel like you want to fast for longer next time.

5)     How often should I fast?

Fasting is not something we do to tick off our Christian bucket list. It is a practice that we have up our sleeve to do whenever we feel prompted by the Spirit. Some people find it helpful to fast one day every week, and that’s fine. I avoid this, as it can become legalistic and when I’ve done this before I’ve tended to end up fasting mainly because that’s what I do and not to seek God urgently for his presence. I fast when there is something particularly pressing to pray for, or when I really need God’s guidance. I’m glad that as of today I can add a new reason to this list: when my church gathers together to pray and fast together!

Will you join us this week, on future prayer and fasting weeks and build this joyful discipline into your life too? If you do, avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, Jesus promises that the Father will reward you. Yes, he promises it. Check out Matthew 6:18 if you don’t believe me.

Oh yeah, one more thing, stock up on some tasty breakfasts as well ;)

Margaret Thatcher and the myth of pitiless indifference April 12th, 2013

They say you will always remember where you were when you found out that Princess Diana died. I was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of a mate’s house in London.

I wonder if the same will be said for Margaret Thatcher. On this occasion though, perhaps I should have paid attention to what was said to me at that moment, rather than my exact location. Upon hearing the news, the very next thing that I was told was: ‘Its probably best to avoid facebook for a few days.’

Wise words. Sadly unheeded.

The most controversial/divisive/polarizing (etc, etc) British Prime Minister of the 20th Century certainly lived up to her tabloid headline legacies if my facebook chums are at all representative of British society.

It’s quite disorientating when you’re used to a stream of ‘lol’s’, hilarious cat pictures and amateur weather reports to suddenly have to deal with words like ‘genocide’ and ‘odium’ and, in some cases, status updates that go on for over 500 words.

There was passion. There was vitriol. There was a smattering of sentimentality, but even that was executed with feeling. People really care about this woman’s life, even if they hated the woman herself.

And what was missing? Well, on Monday there weren’t many ‘Keep Calm and carry on’ spoofs, 90s music videos, nor even the usual plethora of half eaten sandwiches  that people so kindly photograph and instagram for me on a daily basis. The banality and trivilaity of 21st century existence suddenly exploded into real human emotions. It was like people came alive again on Monday 8th April.

I know what you’re thinking. Its what I thought too. It all goes to prove that God exists, doesn’t it?

Oh, that’s not what you were thinking. How embarrassing! Well, let me explain my train of thought then.

According to the prevalent philosophies of our age, we really shouldn’t get so worked up about things. There is no such thing as moral evil that we should take offence at, and actually no such thing as moral good that we should celebrate and take pride in. At a popular level, a moral life is one in which you listen to your heart, hold on to what you believe or follow your dreams. Underpinning these pearls of wisdom, are the slightly more sophisticated ideas of 20th century moral philosophers.

AJ Ayer argued just before the Second World War that all morality was totally subjective. Statements like ‘giving to charity is good’ and ‘murder is bad’ are essentially just expressions of people’s opinions along the lines of ‘I like Marmite’ or ‘I’m not overly fond of the colour mauve’. In effect then, Bob Geldof is no better than Anders Breivik. They simply have different tastes.

Jean Paul Sartre, writing at a similar time, redefined a good life as a life lived with force and vigour, devoid of any objective moral checks. According to Sartre, I define my own meaning and my own morality. The most important thing is to make sure that I use my freedom to act with commitment and passion, and not just to fade into the background. Try to relieve 3rd world poverty or gun down a few dozen people? Following this train of thought, both courses of action would be equally ‘moral’, in that ‘morality’ is a myth and both decisions would forcefully impose your own version of meaningfulness on the world.

And then a little more recently, we have the New Atheist movement, whose proponents have joined forces with Ayer and Sartre in cheerfully explaining away any sense of moral obligation that we’ve been led to believe in. Our sense that some things are ‘right’ and some things are ‘wrong’ is a product, like everything else, of the evolutionary development of our species. Our more kind and empathetic ancestors proved to be better survivors than our more selfish, violent predecessors and so human beings have this general feeling that helping old ladies across roads is good and stealing milk off school children is bad.

Which brings us nicely back to Baronness Thatcher.

Why are people so hot under the collar about this lady and the decisions she made? It would make sense for miners from Yorkshire to have strong feelings about this, but I’m not facebook friends with any miners from Yorkshire. Why are people who were barely alive when the Iron Lady bid her tearful farewell to Downing Street so irate about what she did or did not do?

The answer is simple. Their responses give us a glimpse of the truth we all know but so many have tried to hide. Our actions and decisions matter. Humans have real value. There is such a thing as right and wrong.

The moral relativism and evolutionary extrapolations of the last 100 years have deadened us to moral evil and the value of human life. No question. We might have never heard of Ayer, Sartre or even Dawkins before but their effect is overwhelming. For most 21st century Westerners, life simply doesn’t have any meaning. Not really. Not beyond, eating and drinking, for tomorrow we die. And this leads to countless directionless, meandering lives lived with no sense that they have any real consequence. It also leads to a general atmosphere of utter apathy.

Then, every now and again, something comes along and shakes us out of our carelessness and frivolity and reminds us that we’ve been tricked. An event or personality appears that provokes an emotional reaction that shouts that our actions do matter and our lives are important. They can be forces for good or forces for evil. Not forces for ‘whatever we decide is good’ or forces for ‘the things we’re not very keen on’ or even forces for ‘what we’ve been programmed by natural selection to value or despise for the continued promulgation of the human race’. Real good and real evil. And if there’s real good and real evil, there must be someone beyond us who decides what fits into each category. It is impossible to conceive of a moral law without a moral law giver. Therefore there must be a God and he must care enough about human beings to set us codes of behaviour.

Richard Dawkins wrote this in his book ‘River out of Eden’:

‘The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

It’s a very good summary of the only sensible conclusion to questions of life’s meaning if you remove God from the equation. However, try telling that to Morrissey, Glenda Jackson and Elvis Costello. I don’t wish to side myself with any of the specific verdicts of her life- I don’t really understand politics and still hold to the apparently slightly outdated view that you shouldn’t speak ill of the recently deceased. However, without making any judgement on Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, I think I can be pretty sure about one element of her legacy and it certainly can’t be described as ‘pitiless indifference’.

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A salute to Primary Carers March 8th, 2013

I’m not normally a fan of ‘Hallmark Card’ occasions, but I make an exception for Mothering Sunday. Not only because I love my mum, but also because it’s one of those rare times when our society acknowledges a role that in many ways is counter-cultural.

In fact, any primary carer; whether a dad, foster or adoptive parent, or carer of a disabled adult, fulfils a role that goes against the grain.

How is this? Because these roles involve humility and self-sacrifice; the laying down of your life for another. Things that have the familiar ring of the Good News of Jesus about them, and things which are not exactly celebrated in society. In fact, many of the values society holds dearest are relinquished in order to become a primary carer; personal freedom & independence, academic achievement, and career ambitions, to name a few.

In two fantastic blogs on Motherhood, Melissa McDonald and Rachel Jankovic explore this further. If you’re a mother I urge you to read them and be encouraged!

Being a primary carer is hard. It takes all of you. But in doing it you are reflecting the life of the Servant King Jesus who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20.28).

So in our church, let’s honour and esteem our primary carers, and look to learn something from them about how we can be more like Jesus.

Why are the genealogies of Matthew and Luke so different? February 3rd, 2013

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you will know the feeling. You are reading the Bible, trying to squeeze all you can out of God’s word and hear his voice clearly, then all of our sudden your style of reading changes. Whereas moments before you were reading and re-reading verses in deep concentration, now you are skimming over whole pages, and if you have a more traditional translation, trying to remember what ‘begat’ means. Thats right! You’ve hit a genealogy.

Now some people are very fond of family trees, and so it seems are several of the Bible’s authors, not just in the Old Testament either. Two of the four gospel writers decide to devote good space to Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.

Now, while these passages don’t make for the most rivetting reading, they are incredibly important. They ground the biblical events in history. When a biblical author includes a genealogy, what they’re saying is: ‘This really happened! These are real people who exist in the flow of history, not in the land of fables and fairy tales!’ And regarding the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth (‘begat’ by Joseph and Mary), that is a noble and vital goal.

Except of course, if you get the genealogy wrong!

And that is the accusation that has been put to Matthew and/or Luke by many critics. Their evidence seems pretty conclusive. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies do not square up with each other. Okay, from Abraham to David, they’re consistent, a couple of alternative spellings here and there, but nothing overly problematic, but then they veer away from each other wildly. Matthew begats (I have no idea if I’m using this word correctly anymore, but its a great word!) Jesus from the line of David’s son, Solomon. Luke, from David’s son, Nathan.

This inconsistency has been picked up by a number of the new atheists of the last few years and their concern is a serious one: If the gospels can’t even agree on Jesus’ family tree, how can you really trust them on anything?

It’s a very good question.

However, it does have an answer.

In fact, it has several answers, given by Christian scholars since the early church. Granted some are more plausible than others, and I am not going to give a complete overview. I will however leave you with 3 that I have found helpful in thinking through this difficult issue:

1) Genealogies are not what they seem!

The first is less an answer, more an observation. It would be true to say that nobody really understands the genre of genealogy in the ancient world. Reading lists like those in Matthew and Luke 2000 years later, It looks very simple, like they are writing the ancient equivalent of a modern family tree. Unfortunately, its not quite that straightforward. In ancient genealogies, it was accepted both in and out of the Bible to skip whole generations in genealogies (‘son of’ could mean ‘grandson of’ or even ‘great great grandson of’), and even more confusingly, there are precedents in ancient literature for authors to throw people into these lists who weren’t actually blood relations (with no apparent damage done to their scholarly credentials). As John Nolland sums it up:

‘Ancient genealogies were used for a complex variety of purposes, not all of which can be reconstructed successfully by historical inquiry from such a distance… A complex history of societal function is here reflected, a function largely determined by ancestry but also affected by factors to which we no longer have more than speculative access.’ (Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35a, Luke).

So there!

While this is helpful to keep in mind, if taken too far, it does seem to drain the genealogies of any of their historical significance. But what can be said is that we must make sure we approach all Biblical genealogies with humility, understanding that there may be elements of these lists that are beyond us, but still confident that they are, at least, largely historical in nature. So, with that in mind, what of our two genealogies?

2) Luke casts doubt on his own genealogy himself!

In Luke 3:23 says:

‘Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph the son of Heli… etc, etc’

Now, this could be taken to mean that Jesus was only supposed to be the son of Joseph, but this supposition was false. As Luke has already been at pains to reveal, Jesus’ true father is God. However, it would also be very possible to read it in the original Greek, as ‘the rest of this list is a little suspect, but these were the best sources I could find, so they’ll have to do!’

This would preserve Luke’s integrity as a historian as he is revealing a potentially shaky source. It also preserves the infallibility of Scripture as it was indeed supposed that Joseph’s father was Heli. However, this supposition was incorrect, it was in fact Jacob (Mt 1:16)

While this is possible, it does seem again to make the inclusion of the list a little pointless! Therefore, I would like to suggest the alternative that I go with…

3) Matthew’s genealogy is the genealogy of Joseph, Luke’s genealogy is the genealogy is the genealogy of Mary!

This is, of course, a very neat solution to the problem. Joseph’s dad was Jacob, who was a descendant of Solomon. Mary’s dad was Heli, who was a descendant of Nathan. Job done!

The only problem is that Luke 3 does not seem to leave that option open to us. Or does it? There was a tradition laid down in the Old Testament, by which if a woman had no brothers, upon her marriage, her father could adopt her husband, so that he could have a male heir in his family, and therefore continue his family line through the husband of his daughter (see Numbers 27:3-8, Ezra 2:61, 1 Chr 2:34-35) . Therefore, if Mary had no brothers, her father Heli would have been likely to adopt Joseph according to this biblical  tradition when they got married. If this happened, Joseph would have had two family lines- one by birth, which is what Matthew uses and one by adoption- which Luke uses.

Of course, this may leave you scratching your head, wondering why God made it so complicated. But complexity and apparent misunderstanding were always going to be on the agenda the minute that God ordained that he would speak through human authors, living in specific cultures. This is why it is so important that we become students of God’s word, and appreciate it as both a cultural artefact and a divine revelation. If we miss either of these, we miss the Bible!

Christmas; Nicety or Necessity? December 18th, 2012

I think it’s fair to say people of all ages who’ve lived through 2012 will remember it as a good year, full of uplifting and memorable events like Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win, the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Felix Baumgartner’s space leap. It’s been year that has displayed the best of human achievement and endeavour.

So sad then that 2012 has proved to have a sting in its tail.

Another school shooting, in Newtown Connecticut, where 26 people, mainly children, were needlessly and brutally murdered. This event, just as all its predecessors from Dunblane to Columbine, sent shockwaves across the world, and left us asking once again; how can this kind of thing happen?

The Newtown massacre was all the crueller as it happened so close to the festive season, when people are busy making preparations, buying presents and looking forward to spending time with their families. But Christmas is a time of hope, peace and goodwill to all men isn’t it? Surely Christmas can offer us some hope, some respite from such evil… can’t it?

I would say with confidence that it can. But not the Christmas offered by our culture. That Christmas has become a nicety. My 3 year old illustrated this when I asked her recently what she was looking forward to most about Christmas. She replied ‘Father Christmas giving me lots of presents’. Alongside momentarily making me feel like a parenting failure, she had unwittingly summed up what Christmas has become – the shallow anticipation of material gain, along with warm and cosy feelings and the hope of having a ‘nice’ time. The problem is, niceties cannot answer big questions.

The true Christmas story speaks God’s love, proximity and identification with humanity right into the heart of Newtown, Connecticut. You see, from the moment Jesus was born, he was being hunted by King Herod; a despot who was nervous about a prophesied Messiah being born on his patch. This meant Jesus, having come into the world in the most chaotic and wretched way imaginable, was now a refugee, his parents having to flee to Egypt until Herod’s death. But there was significant collateral damage: ‘Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2.16).

The slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten, often glossed over. How many nativity scenes include Herod’s soldiers alongside the shepherds and wise men? How many times does ‘The Coventry Carol’ feature in a Christmas service?

Yet it’s integral to the Christmas story, which displays that Jesus’ life was one of identification with human suffering  (‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain’ Isaiah 53.3). It’s also important because events like Newtown remind us that the spirit of Herod is still active in the world. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, perhaps unknowingly, highlighted this when he stated “Evil visited this community today”. How true. And such evil. But this isn’t the evil of one ‘loner’ who we can distance from the rest of humanity and therefore cling to our supposed inherent goodness. This is the evil of the same ‘spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Ephesians 2.2) and who holds the world under his control (1 John 5.19).

Nice Christmassy message? Not very cosy and warm and ‘nice’ but then neither is the gospel a nice message, neither is God ‘nice’ in the Santa Claus sense. He is good, and the gospel is good news to a humanity that has rejected its creator, gone its own way and therefore suffers the dual consequence of being morally adrift and open to God’s judgment without a plea. The only way to overcome the awful darkness that we see displayed through our own lives and through atrocities is to believe the message; that darkness is overcome through the death and resurrection of Bethlehem’s baby. For ‘the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 John 3.8), and; ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15).

We need saving, we need rescuing from evil. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He is both the Saviour and the Rescuer of the world. That is why Christmas is a matter of necessity for us. We need it. So let’s tell it boldly, and celebrate the real hope that came into the world through that baby in the manger.

Reading through Acts- Day 44 October 2nd, 2012

Acts 16:16-40- What must I do to be saved?

‘[The jailer] then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved— you and your
household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.’

A common response to Christianity today is ‘you can believe what you like as long as you don’t bother anyone else’. That’s certainly not the way Paul and Silas chose to live! In today’s passage we find them boldly seizing the initiative on three separate occasions. As you read these verses, allow God to not only challenge you, but give you faith to live courageously in your context.

Read: Acts 16:16-40

Questions to consider/ Things to do:

  • Paul and Silas demonstrate the power of the gospel by the way their faith gives them confidence even in the midst of huge pressure and uncertainty (v25). God then helps them in a most dramatic way! Miracles don’t always happen in tough situations, but sometimes we give up too easily. How often do you really expect your prayers to be answered?

 

Further study / action:

Bring your biggest requests to God with fresh courage and faith.

 

 

These notes are adapted from an original version that was first written for Closer to God and are © 2012 Scripture Union and used with permission.

Reading through Acts- Day 43 October 1st, 2012

Acts 16:6-15- Blocked paths and new opportunities

‘Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.’

How do you respond when things don’t go according to plan? There can be the temptation to give up when it seems like things aren’t going to work out as we had hoped. However, if we believe that God is sovereign and our lives are in his hands, then we can have faith that even blocked paths will result in new opportunities.

Read: Acts 16:6-15

Questions to consider/ Things to do:

  • There’s nothing unspiritual about making plans, as long as we’re open for God to change them. Are you?
  • What can we learn from today’s passage about how God guides us?
  • Think back over times when God has guided you (even though you may not have been aware that it was God’s guidance at the time!). How could you be more alert to God’s guidance in your life?

 

These notes are adapted from an original version that was first written for Closer to God and are © 2012 Scripture Union and used with permission.