Monthly Archives: December 2012
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
On Friday, Debbie and I took the children to the Wintershall Estate to see their annual nativity play. We began outside, witnessing Joseph accompanying Mary on a donkey, walking from a distance, picked out by a spotlight in the darkness of late afternoon December. Having then followed them to the inn, we found ourselves witnessing the shepherds. And while it rather stretched the imagination to behold a female shepherd singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’, one effective part of the play had those shepherds debating Israel’s history and hopes before they were shocked by the sudden appearance of the angel. It was a fitting context for what was to come in the angel’s message.
Why? When the angel says, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord,” this is about the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes. It’s why we sing in the carol,
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
The angel uses covenant language in announcing the birth of Jesus. Israel was well used to this. They had known it from the time they were on the borders of the Promised Land as described in the book of Deuteronomy. When Moses preaches back to them there their recent history, he does so in the format of an ancient covenant.
It was like this: a great king would make a covenant with a weaker group of people. The powerful king would bless the weaker party or nation by delivering them or protecting them in some way. In return, those he had saved would promise obedience to him in certain ways prescribed in the covenant. So, on the borders of the Promised Land, the covenant recalls that God, the great king, has provided a miraculous deliverance for the children of Israel from Egypt. Now, in return for his salvation, he asks them to follow his laws.
It’s similar here: the baby is called ‘the Messiah’. He is to be the great king who will deliver Israel, and hence he is also ‘Saviour’. Certainly, Israel was looking out for such a figure. The shepherds in the play at Wintershall recounted how their nation had been exiled in Babylon, but even after returning to their own land they had been invaded by Greece and now by Rome. They were like exiles in their own land.
Of course, with hindsight we know that the Messiah who was born, Jesus, would save his people in a different way from that which they expected. Deliverance from their sins was not to mean an army raised up against the Romans but a Saviour nailed to a Roman cross.
Furthermore, the Messiah’s coming to bring salvation is not just for the Jews, it is ‘good news that will bring great joy for all the people’ (verse 10, italics mine). What begins with the people of God will extend to the world.
The basic truth is clear: the long-awaited Messiah has finally come, and he is bringing salvation. We celebrate this at Christmas. Christmas will make complete sense with Easter: the One who came in poverty and weakness, ‘wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (verse 12) will die in poverty and weakness, hanging on a Cross while soldiers gamble for his clothes. But in doing so, he will absorb all that the darkness will throw at him, and he will conquer evil. The first half of the covenant is clear: God’s king will save his people.
But what of the second half? The king saves a helpless people: what does he demand in return? Again, it is all clear in the angel’s announcement: ‘a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (italics mine). Just as God saved his people from Egypt and then called them to obey his Law, so now Jesus the Messiah comes. He will save his people, and in response he calls them to recognise who he truly is – Lord.
In other words: salvation is freely given. God in Jesus brings it of his own initiative. It is not our doing. But while the gift is free, the appropriate response costs us everything. As Lord, he has the right to direct our ways. What is more, in the life of the Messiah he will show us that explicitly himself. He will not demand of us what he does not demand of himself.
However, it will be costly. In a world ruled by the Romans, to call someone Lord is to imply that the person who usually claimed the title of Lord is not. Caesar claimed to be Lord. To enter into covenant with God’s Messiah involves declaring that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the world are not. Jesus claims our ultimate allegiance, not the world.
Some Christians think that Christmas is just the prelude to the real message, that of Easter. But really they are of a piece. Both announce that the king has come. He is proclaimed at Christmas, and enthroned at Easter, on the Cross. Christmas proclaims Jesus as the Saviour, and Easter delivers on that proclamation. Christmas also says that the Saviour is the Lord, and Easter says he is declared as Lord in the Resurrection.
At Christmas, then, we see that Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with people. He is the King who comes to save his people. He is the Lord who calls all who receive that salvation to follow him as their Master.
This Christmas, may we come to worship the baby king who was given for our salvation and who commands our allegiance, not our tinsel.
I’ve tried writing an address using an app on my new iPad called Haiku Deck. It’s a way of making simple PowerPoint presentations. You don’t get to do anything fancy with transitions, animations or anything like that. You just get to enter two lines of text and choose from some stunning Flickr images that have a Creative Commons copyright licence.
I’ve based this on the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20. Obviously this isn’t a full script, but I hope there’s enough here for it to make sense. Let me know in the comments if it needs illuminating in any way.
“Truly this was the Son of God!
“I was asked once by a well-known broadcaster, ‘do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?’ I replied, as you do, by asking him, ‘it depends on what you mean by, ‘Son of God.’ His reply shook me because he then said, ‘It’s a perfectly simple question, ‘Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?’ My own thought was immediately, ‘I wonder which bit of ‘Son of God’ he is finding simple?’
“I presume he meant do I believe in a literal way? But that is hardly simple. Literal language is OK for baked beans and possibly sunsets, but it gets a bit thin when talking about most of the things that really matter such as love, sadness and wonder. It runs out of steam totally when talking of God. You can’t say anything literal about God!
“I was once in an argument about the new hymn book (I am afraid I get a bit grumpy about some of the alterations to ancient poems that we make and think that our desire to modernise the old is a little like the Christians who wanted to cover the modesty of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel). My colleague disliked the word ‘ineffable’ because he felt no one would understand it. There is a certain irony in that as you can imagine! Given that ‘ineffable’ basically means something we can’t understand, I would have thought it was a useful word to hang on to if we also want to talk about God. God is ‘ineffable’ – and that’s the point.
“That’s the point of Christmas. How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate? How can we even try to talk of God when literal language so lets us down? God’s answer is, of course, the ‘self sending’ – of a God who in Charles Wesley’s words is, ‘contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ What we can ever understand of God has to begin by taking account of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is written about in Colossians 1:15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ and verse 19: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’
“The ‘Word’ is God, says John. Now this isn’t simple language either, but it directs you a kind of struggle to understand that is different from, for example, trying to get your head around Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity! Because it is truth revealed and held in a person, understanding and engaging with that truth is as much about love and obedience as it is about intellectual capacity and linguistic dexterity. We are not so much asked to assent to a philosophical or religious claim, ‘yes I agree that Jesus is the Son of God,’ but inhabit a story, the Christmas story, to live within ancient tale of human struggle and courage, of wonder and delight, of mystery and of angels declaring good news. Children get this much more easily than adults who want the whys and the wherefores of an extraordinary story which is far more than an odd biological claim on the Universe.
“Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course, wonder of wonders, ‘Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity.’ I inhabit this ancient story and find it to be true. Wrapped in our clay we may not immediately recognise the creator of all things. But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a parent in Sandy Hook since Friday. If I had said goodbye to one of my children at the school gate that morning and never seen them again – except in a mortuary – well, I just don’t know. I would be howling. Inconsolable.
And obviously it has reignited the debate about gun control in the States. Some (including in the church) say we shouldn’t be political. I recall after Dunblane here being asked not to preach about the wicked tragedy, but we must raise these issues. So maybe there are things I don’t understand as an outsider to American culture, but here are some of my questions for those who think gun control should not be tightened. I have put in bold what I perceive to be these people’s objections to legal restrictions. I have read several of these in the last three days, and – to let the cat out of the bag – I’m not convinced by the gun lobby.
Criminals will ignore laws They do – but on that basis you wouldn’t legislate anything. Is that what you want?
There are too many millions of guns in circulation for legislation to be effective Well, doesn’t that argument remind you of similar ones used to oppose Wilberforce and the abolitionist lobby?
America is different from other nations I’ve seen that as a comment on a friend’s Facebook page. I’m sorry, that’s just insulting. Is that just another version of American exceptionalism? And if you approach this as a Christian, how exactly is America not characterised by the same beauties and flaws of human character as anywhere else? It’s time to realise that the examples of other major nations when it comes to the public availability of arms show this up for what it is.
Quoting the Second Amendment in a fundamentalist way In other words, just quoting the words without context. Back then, guns were loaded one bullet at a time. Today, clips may have a hundred bullets. Since when is ‘the right to bear arms’ really a right to protect a consumerist lifestyle? How on earth can churches vocally support such a thing?
Laws won’t change the human heart Is anyone saying they will? Nobody is making so grandiose a claim. But laws still have a value, in restraining evil. Read Romans 13 again.
Sandy Hook happened because public prayer is banned in schools You mean your God is so small he can be rendered ineffective by the separation of Church and State? Read God can’t be kept out by Rachel Held Evans. Preach it, sister.
This isn’t about gun control, it’s about mental health We don’t know all we can know about Adam Lanza, but does it really stand up to say, ‘Just keep weapons out of the hands of the crazies and we’ll be OK’? Are mentally stable people always to be trusted with guns?
My dear American friends: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and many other places. How many more young lives must be cut down before effective action is taken?
Meanwhile, can we in the church model a different way? A better way? A kingdom way?
Guest Post, Gathering the Flock into the Fold Digitally: 4 Mobile Apps for Christian Clergy by Jessica McMann
Having just acquired an iPad, Jessica’s post is apposite for me. I confess I’ve had this on the stocks for a couple of weeks, but we have had major problems with our main computer, so it has had to wait. I’m grateful to Jessica for offering this post, writing it and then being patient while our PC was repaired. – Dave
As with any facet in our modern, connected world, mobile technology can help immensely in bringing people together and helping us do our jobs. And church is no exception. Check out the following apps to help you craft effective sermons, connect with your congregation, and keep learning about the faith:
Yap Tap is a communication application that helps pastors stay specifically in touch with their youth groups, although it can be used for a variety of church-related groups as well. It’s essentially a social media, text messaging, and email system all rolled into one. Everyone in your congregation or youth group has their own preferred communication method. With Yap Tap, you have complete control in terms of who, when, and how you send communications to your church. Yap Tap is especially helpful for clergy members who find it difficult to communicate with so many different online mediums available. [Editor's note: in a British context, there might be child protection issues around using this app with a youth group. You may need to check your Safeguarding policies. - Dave]
Crafting a sermon is difficult, especially when you can’t quite remember the Bible verses you’d like to incorporate. Not Just Words solves this problem immediately. It’s a mobile Bible search application that enables users to search any word or phrase, after which it will generate search results for related words and phrases. For example, if you search the word “speak” it will find verses that use related words like “uttered.” Not Just Words also enables users to search for themes in specific Bible books. If you’d like to find out what the Book of John says about faith, just search “faith in John,” and the tool pulls up all mentions of faith in the Book of John.
There are quite a few prayer apps out there, but this one I found to be most useful. It’s a great tool to help you manage prayer requests and maintain a prayer journal. The app also features more than 100 sample prayers that you can bookmark for later use. This is a great one to suggest to members of your church for their own personal use as well.
The Church App is a mobile app platform that enables church leaders to create their own, customizable apps for their congregation. The Church App will build a mobile app for you that enables you to do a variety of things, like share sermons in audio or video, create events with maps, integrate giving, and empower your congregation to communicate.
Of course, these aren’t the only helpful apps out there for clergymen and women. But they’re definitely a great start in getting your church and congregation to be more connected. Good luck!
Jessica McMann is a freelance writer whose primary interest is Christian education. She enjoys writing about homeschooling, Christian universities, and learning through a Christ-focused community. Check out more of Jessica’s writing at ChristianColleges.com
So often different parties in the church are at war with each other. Just like Jesus wanted. Not.
But here is a music project that links Catholics, Evangelicals and more Liberal/middle of the road Christians. It’s The Martyrs Project. The Catholic website Salt And Light Radio is featuring the video for their song about Oscar Romero. You can read more there about who is involved. It includes some of my favourite Christian musicians.
Alternatively, below is (just) the Romero video:
Looks like one Brisbane church accidentally got it right for this time of year:
Church in Brisbane is singing “O Come O Come Immanuel”. Then the OHP screen shows verse 2: “And save us all from Santa’s tyranny”.
— Ship of Fools (@shipoffoolscom) December 9, 2012
I want to add my small voice to those paying tribute to Sir Patrick Moore, who died yesterday. I won’t speak about the amateur astronomer whose lunar maps were used by NASA in preparing for the moon landings. I haven’t gone looking for videos of his xylophone playing. I won’t comment on the allegations that he was a racist. Nor will I even make anything of the fact that he celebrated a particularly fine day of the year as his birthday.
I simply want to retell one story.
My father has been a member of the British Astronomical Association for all my life and longer. When I was a child, he took me to London one day to hear a lecture by Patrick Moore. It went above my head, but clearly inspired many adults and children who were present.
Afterwards, a long queue formed of people who wanted to ask Moore questions. I noticed how he took the children as seriously as the adults. Adults were not more important; they had to wait while he gave children’s questions his full attention.
It is an example more churches need to emulate.
Tomorrow will be a milestone for me: the iPad arrived on Thursday, and so in the morning I shall preach my first paperless sermon in the thirty-five years since I first preached as a teenager. Here it is:
There’s no doubt about it: if you put together your dream team for ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, John the Baptist would be on it. The man who lived in the desert and existed on a diet of locusts and honey would be a shoo-in for the bush tucker trials. In a cage, having insects dropped on him? Breakfast. Being forced to eat the private parts of strange Australian animals? Lunch. Any fading radio or television personalities seeking to re-ignite their careers by endearing themselves to the public through their endurance of humiliation would be blown away by J the B.
But sometimes we don’t get much past that aspect of John, those elements of his lifestyle that we condescendingly assume to be eccentric. Who has not secretly sniggered at the gospel descriptions of him?
There is far more to him, in terms of the way he prepares the way for the Messiah – which is why, part-way through Advent, we skip thirty years beyond Jesus’ birth to passages such as today’s. These six verses, which we might mistakenly dismiss as a mere preface to the real action, are packed with significance for the coming of the Christ.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)
‘History is bunk’ was the foolish saying of Henry Ford, the car maker. It is a sentiment echoed by the so-called New Atheists today, who sneer at our scriptures on the basis that it is crazy to base our lives on writings from the Bronze Age.
But Luke – not for the first time – locates his story in space and time. ‘This is the year that it happened,’ he says, ‘and these are the people who were in power.’
Why does this matter? Because the coming of the Christ changed everything. There are such things as events that altered the course of history, and Luke makes the bold claim that the arrival of the Messiah is just that – indeed, the greatest such event in history. This is what we are marking. There are certain parts of our Scriptures where it is of little account whether they are historical, but this is one of many – and the pivotal one at that – where the fact of history is critical to the truth.
Well, this is not an interventionist God but the work of a God who is always at work in history, and who did his most significant historical work among the human race when he gave up his only begotten Son.
It is this God who is committed to changing history. It is this God who cares about the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. The God who announced his Son through John the Baptist during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, under the delegated authority exercised by Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and during the times of Annas and Caiaphas, is the God who is still at work in the reign of Elizabeth II, her Prime Minister David Cameron and of Mark Wakelin’s presidency of the Methodist Conference. Here and now, in December 2012, that God is present and at work for his kingdom through his Son and in the power of his Spirit.
What does that mean for us? God through Jesus is always committed to working for salvation. That includes now. Take a moment to reflect: where do we need to see God at work? Where does our world need to see God at work? The Advent message as John the Baptist heralds the coming King is that the King is still coming in salvation, because history is the arena where he works. That means us, just as much as the biblical story.
Our second theme is power. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? John the Baptist announces the coming Messiah in a context of these powerful people.
The snag is, John isn’t impressed by the powerful and the Gospel writers certainly weren’t, either. Pontius Pilate chose to save his own political bacon rather than do justice. Herod saved his adulterous marriage by executing John. Annas and Caiaphas conspired in the arrest of Jesus.
John, on the other hand, works on the margins, in the countryside (verse 3) and the wilderness (verse 4), far from the centres of power, just as Jesus was born in little old insignificant Bethlehem, not in the capital city of Jerusalem.
It raises a serious question for us about how we view power and influence. Ours is a culture that refers to the President of the USA as ‘the most powerful person on Earth’. We talk about politicians being ‘in power’. It is also exercised by the media and by multinational companies. We defer to the influence of celebrities.
And before we look too far down our noses at this culture, let us remember that the church falls into the same trap all too often as well. We like it when a famous person becomes a Christian, as if their testimony were more valuable than that of an ‘ordinary’ person. We think the Church is more effective when we lobby politicians. We are under a delusion that the most important people in the Church are the ministers, and especially those holding senior positions.
Does any of this make sense when John exercises his ministry off the beaten track? When the only time we know he came into contact with the powerful was when he criticised Herod’s adulterous marriage and paid with his life? It’s hardly the kind of life that would feature in Hello magazine, or get press releases in the daily papers.
Knowing this, I am fond of the expression coined by one Christian that what we are about in the mission of Jesus is ‘the conspiracy of the insignificant’. It is the sort of thing going on at Corinth when the Apostle Paul reminds them that not many of them came from influential parts of society.
So take heart if you are one of our world’s nobodies. You are precisely the sort of person God delights to use in the spread of his kingdom, as he reverses the values of our world. If he even sent his Son to be born in an obscure town and raised in another backwater, if he grew up as an artisan rather than a power broker, what do you think that says about his potential to use you in his kingdom purposes?
However, that still leaves a question especially for some Surrey residents. We include among our number people who are influential in ways that the world recognises. Should such Christians give up their roles?
By no means necessarily. There are a few such people featured among the disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and occasionally in Acts and the Epistles. They clearly remained where they were when they were called by Christ. The distinctive Christian call to such people is surely to subvert the world’s love affair with power by not using it in self-aggrandising ways, but by seeking to use such positions for the welfare of others, as a voice for the voiceless not a cheerleader for the privileged, and in the fashion of a servant, contrary to expectations.
Thirdly and finally, having been firstly among the historians and secondly among the politicians and the powerful, then we are now among the civil engineers. Our third theme coalesces around images of roadworks:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”’ (Verses 4-6)
Straightened paths, filled-in valleys, mountains and hills flattened, crooked roads straightened, rough ways made smooth. As the arrival of winter here sees the increase of potholes in Surrey roads, so a Highways Agency project rather like this prophecy of Isaiah 40 that Luke quotes sounds very appealing to us.
But we generally interpret this as an image for the kind of message John the Baptist proclaimed, namely one of repentance. Although Isaiah 40 in its original context has a sense of smoothing out the way for God to lead his people on a highway back from Babylon to Judah, in the New Testament’s use in relation to John it becomes a metaphor for repentance. John is announcing that the King is coming, and so just as a town is cleaned up before a royal visit, so we need to straighten out the roads of our lives in order to be ready for Christ.
That much is certainly true. We need to get rid of our crooked ways if we are to be fit to receive the King. Advent needs to be a time of self-examination. Preparation for Christmas is not merely about completing the present-buying, writing the cards and finishing the annual letter. It is a time of spiritual preparation, which is why there are hints in earlier centuries of the Church that Advent was regarded as some kind of penitential season, almost like Lent. As the world is filled with lights outside, we need to shine lights inside to see how we are preparing our hearts and minds for the reign of God in Christ.
Yet let me suggest there is more to this than we sometimes suppose. There is here preparation that we need to do – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him’ but this is not just about commands to us. The rest of the prophecy is about promise – ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’
Not only are we commanded to change, God promises change. I believe this means a couple of things. One is the gospel reminder that the call to change our lives is never meant to be accomplished on our own. We are incapable alone of making ourselves into the people God wants us to be. But his command to turn our lives around is accompanied by the promise that he will be at work among us by his Spirit to fulfil those purposes.
However, I think there is even more here than that. If God promises that we shall change from crooked to straight, from rough to smooth, then I suggest that is not only about growing in holiness. I offer to you the thought that there is much that is rough and crooked in our lives that is not necessarily sin. We carry burdens, brokenness, damage and pain from so much of life and I believe God also promises the straightening out of these sorrows and defects, too. Is that not what Jesus also came to do, as well as call people to repentance, as his cousin John did? Just as I long for the day when I shall no longer have to slalom around the regular potholes in our road – well, I can hope! – so I long for the day when God will complete his work of restoration in every way.
If you thought, then, that everything about John the Baptist was severe, I invite you to think again. Yes, there is the challenge to repentance, but it comes in the context of the God who is always at work in history – including ours. It comes as good news from the God who is pleased to work among the nobodies and on the fringes. It comes as part of a rebuilding package for every part of our lives.
Let us celebrate the ministry of John the Baptist and every way in which he points us and the world to Christ.