Christmas Joy

November 29, 2010

I wonder how many of you own a Christmas compilation album? You’ll find shelves stocked with them everywhere during the festive season, but despite the many different CDs available, they generally all have the same songs on them. They’ll all feature ‘Merry Xmas Everyone’ by Slade and other cheery, upbeat songs that get you in the mood for a party.

Not many of them will feature ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell. It’s as much about Christmas as Noddy Holder’s hit but it doesn’t get a great deal of airplay. It begins with the lines “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace” – what’s not Christmasy about that?

But Joni goes on to sing “I wish I had a river I could skate away on”. ‘River’ is all about wanting to escape the pain of celebrating Christmas alone after a relationship has ended.  Though everyone around her is “singing songs of joy and peace”, Joni mournfully sings of how lonely and empty she feels.

I wonder how many people feel that way as we approach this Christmas? For most people it is a time spent with friends and family, going to parties, receiving presents and generally enjoying themselves, but there are those for whom Christmas holds no enjoyment. On December 25th this year there will be many people sitting alone, with no family coming to visit them, no friends to celebrate with, no presents to unwrap and no turkey to enjoy. Perhaps you know some of them; the grieving  widow, the orphan, the man who’s lost his job, the young single mum. Do we expect the pain of life to magically disappear because it’s a special time of year?

I’m sure those people who find Christmas a difficult time look at those who have it all – the tree, the lights, the mountains of presents, the family gatherings, the parties, all those things we picture when we think of Christmas – and wish they could have that life. It must be tempting to think that if they had all that, then they’d be happy, then they’d rejoice that December was finally here.

Though there certainly is much pleasure to be had from a Christmas with all the trimmings, that isn’t where the Bible tells us we should find our joy. In fact, if our Christmas lacks one vital component, then it doesn’t matter how we spend the festive season, any temporary happiness we find will soon give way to emptiness.

In Luke chapter 2, we read the words the shepherds heard when the very first Christmas was announced.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

There may not be any mention of turkey, snowmen or Santa Claus, but nevertheless we are invited to a great celebration. Jesus has been born! The Saviour has come! Here is the source of all our joy. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has come to rescue us from our sin. What better reason to celebrate could there be? We can try all we like to find that joy in other things, but ultimately it’s like planning a birthday party for someone and then forgetting to invite them – it doesn’t matter how great the party is, it’s not serving its purpose.

You may have seen the story on the news a few months ago about the miners trapped underground in Chile. At the time the story broke it was estimated that the men would be freed around Christmas time. I wonder, if those men could choose between being rescued from their underground prison and celebrating their freedom on the surface, or having their families sent down to them with a Christmas tree and a turkey and beautiful gift-wrapped presents so they could have a Christmas party underground, which would they choose? How much more joyful would their celebrations be on the surface than those with all the trimmings in captivity?

The angel says that this good news of great joy isn’t reserved for those who can celebrate in style. The angel declares that this joy is for all people! There are many stories in the gospels about Jesus spending time with the less fortunate of society, and the true joy of Christmas is no different. The joy the angel talks about comes from knowing Christ as our Saviour. We celebrate his birth because without it, there would be no hope for mankind. The invitation to rejoice at his birth is extended to all, whether you celebrate in a big house with family around you, or you’re alone and struggling to pay the rent. The truth is that it’s possible to have the most joyous Christmas you’ve ever had this year. You can rejoice that Jesus came to save you, that he will always be with you, and that following Him makes you part of His ever-growing family.


Forgiveness

November 1, 2010

Channel 4 broadcast a series of programmes called “The Bible – a History” earlier this year.  Each episode was presented by a well-known figure who investigated a certain part of the Bible as a historical text. A glance at the line-up of presenters is enough to show that Channel 4 are trying to be provocative, and though I’ve not seen them all, I’m told that some instalments have been very controversial. Ann Widdecombe’s lively exchange with Stephen Fry about the Ten Commandments is now a much viewed video on youtube.

I happened to catch the programme featuring perhaps the most surprising presenter; Gerry Adams. The programme focussed on the life of Jesus, and followed Gerry Adams as he sought to find out “what Jesus means to him”.

Adams, who calls himself a ‘devout Catholic’, reveals a great deal about himself and the state of his soul during the programme. In his own words, Adams sums up his Christian experience thus “’I like the sense of there being a God, and I do take succour now from the collective comfort of being at a Mass or another religious event where you can be anonymous and individual – just a sense of community at prayer and of paying attention to that spiritual dimension which is in all of us; and I also take some succour in a private, solitary way from being able to reflect on those things”

The programme focuses on The message of Jesus’ life and a particular emphasis is placed of Jesus’ teaching with regards to forgiveness. Now why would a man like Adams be interested in forgiveness?

Gerry Adams is the President of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Party. He comes from a long line of IRA Members and supporters. Though Adams himself claims to have never been a member of the IRA, he has spent time in prison for his part in the Bloody Friday bombings in 1972, which killed 9 people and injured 130. He is a man who does not shy away from taking extreme measures.

During the programme Gerry Adams is asked whether or not he feels he has blood on his hands – and he replies by saying that the ends justified the means, so no.  Later on in the programme, as he visits what is considered to be the location of Jesus’ trial, he sees himself as more of a Barabbas than a Jesus, correcting the historian’s description of Barabbas as a terrorist by saying “some might call him a freedom fighter”.

And yet, he is obviously touched during the programme by the way Jesus lived his life. As the historians he speaks to deny the historical facts of our Saviour’s life recorded in the gospels (see earlier post, Good and angry), he seems uninterested in investigating these supposed falsehoods, because he is looking for something else. He’s interested in what Jesus did, he’s interested in what Jesus taught. He’s interested in absolution. And he’s not the only one.

Gerry Adams represents most of the population of the world. He’s guilty and he knows it. Why else would he make the statement that “One thing I always liked about Jesus was his lack of condemnation”? He may say he feels no responsibility for the things he’s done, but in his heart of hearts he knows what he’s done and knows he is guilty – just like the rest of us. He also, just like the rest of us, wants to be free of his guilt. But, and here’s where it gets tricky, he doesn’t want to admit that he was wrong.  He has misunderstood how God’s forgiveness works. 

If our entry into heaven depended on our good behaviour and moral lifestyle then it would be a very lonely place.  But because bringing a sinner to true repentance and faith is an act of God, and not of man, it is possible for us to be forgiven. We can be washed clean of every sinful thing we’ve ever done. But that’s only because someone else has borne them for us, and taken the punishment for them. Had Christ not paid the price for our sin, there would be no way for a righteous God to even consider forgiving us. What’s more that forgiveness is freely offered to those who ask for it, but that is where the problem lies. In order to ask forgiveness we must first see ourselves as we really are, and that can’t happen without God’s help is removing our pride. If only Gerry Adams knew that he can be free of that guilt he feels for the things he’s done, if he could only let God show him how much he needs it.


He is risen!

February 3, 2010

 

Just before Christmas, I was on a long train journey. To pass the time, I picked up a copy of the Metro and came across a review of the decade. As I scanned the double page spread, I expected to see events like the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, Hurricane Katrina from 2005 and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 taking centre stage. But the stories given the most column inches were the deaths of celebrities. The reviewer recalled Heath Ledger’s accidental overdose, Brittany Murphy’s sudden heart attack, and, not surprisingly, Michael Jackson’s death amongst the events that rocked the world over the last ten years.

We all saw the news reports showing distraught fans crying on each other shoulders, the thousands of bouquets laid in memory, the candlelit vigil held at Jacko’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame. It’s easy to see why those events stick in people’s minds.

It’s often the case with those who live their lives in the limelight that when the light goes out their glittering achievements are eclipsed by a morbid fascination with the way their lives ended. I recently saw a programme marking 75 years since Elvis was born; much of the programme focused on the circumstances surrounding his death. The death of Diana Princess of Wales sparked a similar reaction, with scores of television programmes, newspaper articles, books and websites dedicated to the details of the car accident that took her life.

We can all be suitably appalled at this distasteful fixation with death, but I wonder if we are sometimes guilty of the same thing?

Easter is a time when we remember the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember how he suffered on the cross for us. It’s a message we hear all year round, and it’s crucial to preaching the gospel. Then on Easter Sunday we hear how, after three days in the tomb, Jesus rose from the dead never again to die. How many times a year do we think about that I wonder?

Without the resurrection, the cross is senseless. And so is Jesus’ life, all his claims, all his miracles, all his teaching; if he didn’t rise from the dead why should we put our trust in any of it?

Paul knew the importance of teaching the Resurrection. In Acts 17 it was Paul’s teaching on Jesus and the Resurrection that got the attention of the idolatrous Athenians:

 ‘…Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”’  Acts 17v18-20

Paul’s epistles are full of teaching on the resurrection. It’s clear that to Paul it was essential that the early church knew they were followers of a living God. So why is it so vital?

The Resurrection gives us proof – “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”, so they say. And that is what the resurrection is – the proof. The resurrection is the proof that Jesus was the Son of God, and therefore the only one who could take away the sin of the world. It is ludicrous to believe Jesus really was God, but that he didn’t really rise from the dead. If he didn’t, then he was a liar, conning people into following him, but if he did he is to be worshipped as LORD over all.

The Resurrection gives us hope – Because Jesus lives we can know that death really has been defeated and our sin really has been dealt with. Death exists because of sin (there was no death in the Garden), and for Christ to die meant that he carried the consequence of our sin. But his resurrection is the proof that death was no longer a punishment for those he came to save, but that death was now merely a doorway to Glory! Had Jesus not risen from the dead, we would never know for sure that we would, as Paul explains “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15v20). Because of the resurrection we can be comforted when a Christian loved one dies, or we can rejoice when we read of martyrs who died for the faith, for we know that we will one day worship God together.  

 The resurrection gives us something no other religion has – We spend so much time telling non-Christians how they can be saved through the death of Christ. But every other major religious leader is dead too. His resurrection on the other hand is a stark contrast to everything else the world is offering. No other religion claims to follow a man who was God, who died and rose again. Why? Because to make such a claim if it’s false is very foolish and can easily be proved wrong. No other religion can claim such a thing because no such thing is true of any other religious leader. But for Christians, God is not a remote being disconnected from our lives, but a living and loving Saviour who knows our struggles and feels our pain.  

We often talk about living our lives at the foot of the cross, but what about living at the door of the empty tomb? Christ is risen! Hallelujah!


Christmas Announced!

January 22, 2010

I don’t know about you, but I think the countdown to Christmas starts far too early. It seems like my summer tan has only just begun to fade when suddenly every shop window is adorned in red and green glitter and the Wizards are wishing it could be Christmas everyday in my supermarket. By the middle of October children everywhere have studied the Argos Catalogue in detail and written the 3rd draft of their wish-list. I wonder how people can sustain that level of excitement for three months! On the other hand, maybe it’s not just Hallmark and Debenhams that like to get a head start on announcing the forthcoming festive season.

I wonder if you know where we find the first mention of the first Christmas in the Bible? You might think of the angel coming to Mary, or the prophesy in Isaiah about the coming Messiah. But it’s neither of those. The first Christmas was foretold far earlier than that. In fact, the first people to hear about the first Christmas were the first man and first woman, Adam and Eve. We find it in Genesis 3 verse 15,

 And I will put enmity
       between you and the woman,
       and between your offspring and hers;
       he will crush your head,
       and you will strike his heel.”

Don’t be alarmed, you did read that right. Genesis 3:15 is the first mention of Christmas. But there’s no big bearded man in a red suit, no reindeer, and no stockings. There’s not even a baby in a manger and the cattle aren’t lowing. How can this verse possibly be talking about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem?

It’s easy for us to forget the true meaning of the Christmas story amidst all the festivity. And that is why Genesis 3 is so important to remember; because it talks about the reason Jesus was born.

God had made a perfect world. He lovingly created it, speaking everything into existence. His perfect servants, Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect relationship with God. They walked through the Garden of Eden together, sharing everything, with no shame or fear or doubt. They tended the Garden and cared for God’s creation.

But not everyone was happy with this arrangement. Satan, God’s enemy, plotted to destroy the perfect world God had created. He hated God’s relationship with Adam and Eve. He took the form of a snake in the Garden and convinced Eve to disobey the only rule God had given. She fell for Satan’s plot, and Adam followed her into sin. Suddenly that perfect relationship man had with God was ruined by their disobedience.

Sin had entered the world. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the whole of creation was tainted. Adam and Eve could no longer enjoy the close relationship they had with God, and all their descendents after them would suffer the consequences of their actions and follow their rebellious example. We see the effects of sin all around us today, not least in our own hearts.

It seems like Satan has won doesn’t it? It seems he has succeeded in his mission the destroy God’s perfect world. But that is why verse 15 is so important. This verse points to the only hope for humanity, it’s God’s promise of rescue. These are God’s words to the snake in the Garden. Though Satan has succeeded in drawing Adam and Eve into sin, God is far more powerful than he is. God curses the snake and sets his rescue plan for creation into motion. And this is where the Christmas story comes in. God promises that one day, a man (Eve’s offspring) will end Satan’s power over humanity. Through his own suffering (“you will strike his heel”) he will win the victory over Satan (“he will crush your head”).

Jesus Christ is the “he” in this verse. At Christmas time we celebrate the birth of no ordinary baby, but God’s Promised Saviour to the world. God sent his own Son into the world with one purpose. He was sent on a rescue mission. He lived a perfect life, according to God’s perfect plan, and took the punishment for our sins. Through his death on the Cross he freed us from Satan’s enslaving power, he took God’s just punishment for our disobedience, restoring the broken relationship between God and Man.

Genesis is only the first of many prophesies in the Old Testament about Jesus. The whole of history up to his birth had been looking forward to, and yearning for, his coming, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). We find it hard to wait three months for Christmas Day, just imagine what it was like to wait centuries for God’s rescuer to come! At God’s chosen time, he came, and took on Satan and death and hell, and won the victory God had promised in the garden.

 “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”  2 Corinthians 5:19       

 Adam and Eve waited their whole lives to see Satan defeated, but we needn’t wait. Christ HAS come, He Has Triumphed!


Heavens above

February 27, 2009

On November 24th 2008 The Streets released the first single from their eagerly awaited album, ‘Everything is borrowed’. The single was called “Heaven for the weather”, and the chorus went like this;

“I want to go to heaven for the weather
But hell for the company
I want to go to heaven for the weather
But hell seems like fun to me”

It was a big hit and is still getting a lot of airplay several months on. It’s an upbeat, feel-good track, with a catchy tune designed to get you singing along. But I wonder how many people agree with Mike Skinner as they sing along with him?

When I was in school I studied Dr Faustus. At the beginning of the term, my teacher asked us to share our opinions on heaven and hell, angels, demons and damnation. I was surprised at the things my classmates believed. Many of them were surprised by my own opinions, the difference being that mine were drawn from the Bible and theirs were more influenced by the Simpsons.

No-one can say what happens after death doesn’t apply to them, yet so many people go through life with no idea of what lies beyond the grave.  What’s more many Christians wouldn’t know where to start to put people right. So here are 3 common myths about heaven that we should set straight:

Myth #1 : Heaven is where good people go when they die.

If you asked a stranger on the street, ‘Who gets to go to Heaven?’ they might tell you that they think everyone does. But very few people really believe that. After all, nobody would expect to see Stalin or Hitler in Heaven. Whether they realise it or not, most non-Christians believe there is a standard to be met to get into heaven. The mistake is they set the bar far too low, and rate themselves too highly.  They think that being good, in their own terms, is enough.

 

What does the Bible say?

“There is no-one righteous, not even one”                                         

                                                                                  Romans 3:9-11

“all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”          

                                                                                        Isaiah 64:6

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”                                                                

                                                                                         Matthew 5:48

 

The standard for heaven is perfection. Nothing less will do.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to spend eternity in a place that wasn’t perfect, that had all the failings of this world.  The problem is that none of us can achieve perfection, no amount of good deeds or church attendance can make us good enough. The only way sinners like us can gain entry is to see ourselves as we really are, have Jesus deal with our sin and to swap our ‘filthy rags’ for his spotless life. Jesus himself summed it up perfectly when he said “…no-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

 

Myth #2: When people die and go to heaven, they become angels

When most people think of heaven, they think of a scene not unlike a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Bugs Bunny gets crushed by a falling anvil; his soul (a partially see-through version of Bugs) comes out of his body and floats up to a cloud where he sits in a white robe with wings and a halo playing a harp. Many like to think of their deceased relatives as being their ‘guardian angels’ watching over them and keeping them safe.

 

What does the Bible say?

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings (angels) and crowned him with glory and honour.                                         

                                                                                               Psalm 8:4-5

   

The Bible tells us that angels and humans are not the same. God created the angels before he created the earth, they are a different creature altogether. Angels are God’s messengers; they appear regularly in the Bible to make a public announcement (like the Birth of Jesus) or to pass on a message to a particular individual (like Gideon). Angels live in heaven with God where their job is to serve him, not us.

A major difference between angels and us is that, although the angels worship God as we should, they know him only as their Creator, not as their Father as we do. God didn’t send his own Son to die for the angels. Because He sent Jesus to pay the price for our sins, we know that he loves us more than words can express, and therefore our worship is all the more pleasing to him.   

 

Myth #3: Heaven is boring

To so many, heaven seems like a rather dull way to spend eternity. If Heaven really is about wearing white and playing a harp, then I’m sure we’d all get bored eventually. We crave excitement and entertainment, but there’s no place for thrill-seekers in the heaven of our imaginations. Perhaps the reason why so many people live by the rule ‘eat, drink and be merry’ is because once they reach the ‘for tomorrow we die’ part, it means the party’s over. No more fun, no more freedom, no more doing whatever you want.

 

What does the Bible say?

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.                                                                               Revelation21:4

 

And they were calling to one another: 
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”                                                                               Isaiah 6:3

 

There are two things we need to understand about heaven. First, we need to have the right picture in our minds. In Revelation 21 John describes what he saw when God gave him a vision of heaven, and it is breath-takingly magnificent. But not only is heaven beautiful, it is a place where sin does not exist. No-one can hurt us there, nothing will go wrong, everything is perfect, and we will be too.   

Second, we need to understand what the point of being there is. The thing that makes heaven amazing, far beyond all the things we’ve already mentioned, is that God is there. Imagining heaven without God’s glory is like a football match with no ball. You could run around the pitch and put all you energy into it, get all the exercise benefits, but without a ball there’s really no point. Heaven is a wonderful place, but without God there would be no purpose to our being there.  The continuing thrill, the never ending excitement of heaven is found in experiencing the glory of God that brings uninterrupted delight.  There’s nothing boring about heaven!

 

  So now that we know what heaven is really like, wouldn’t it be selfish of us to keep that to ourselves and let our friends go on thinking that hell would be more fun? Why don’t you pray for an opportunity to tell them about how amazing heaven really is, and you never know, they might be interested in finding out how they can experience it for themselves. 


Why Worry?

February 10, 2009

Lost and Confused SignpostStress. Anxiety. Worry.  These words are being used more and more, and are the cause of many sick days and doctors appointments. But stress isn’t a new invention. In fact, Jesus himself preached a sermon on stress in Matthew 6.

Why do we worry?

A university in America conducted a scientific study and discovered that worrying is, to some extent, genetic. They discovered that we’re either born with a tendency to be anxious, or we’re naturally laid back. So, if you’re a worrier, it’s not your fault so you needn’t worry, but since you’re a born worrier you can’t help it, and if you’re naturally laid-back, you’ve got nothing to worry about because you’ll always take everything in your stride, not that you would worry anyway!

But, as we all know, there are some things that everyone worries about. 

Why shouldn’t we worry?

R.H. Mounce said that “Worry is practical Atheism and an affront to God”. When we worry, we are effectively saying to God “I don’t trust you to handle this”. It’s a way of trying to retain some control of our lives. We think that God doesn’t understand, and that we can do a better job of running our lives ourselves. We might not mean to say those things, but that’s what worry shows about us.

Besides being offensive to God, worrying is a complete waste of time!

§  Worry is UNNECCESSARY – no-one can gain anything from worrying. Nobody works harder than a bird, they find their own food, build their own nests, they protect themselves from their prey. They have no need to worry, because God looks after them.  The same with flowers, they don’t worry about how they look, they are beautiful because God made them that way.

 

§  Worry is USELESS – Being anxious about something doesn’t change it or make it go away. It can’t add a single hour to our lives, in fact it can shorten your life. Spending sleepless nights running over the things that cause us anxiety doesn’t mean that problem will magically disappear by morning. Whether we worry or not, we still face all the same things.

 

§  Worry is BLIND – It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses examples from nature in his sermon on the mount. If we only open our eyes and look at the world around us we see plenty of examples of God’s care for the World he created and his love for his people. When we worry, it’s like we put on a pair of blinkers that stop us seeing all that evidence.

 

§  Worry is FORGETFUL – We ignore all the times in the past when God has worked everything for our good as he promises. We can all look at occasions in our lives when things were hard, when we were struggling with a particular issue, when we couldn’t sleep or eat, when there seemed to be no way out…..and what happened? God saw us through didn’t he? And he promises to do that again and again and again.

 

Why worry when you could be seeking God’s Kingdom?

That doesn’t mean that if you don’t study for an exam, but spend all your time praying, that God will miraculously give you the answers and you’ll pass with flying colours. It means that when we put God above everything, and do everything else to honour him, he’ll be there when things are hard. God’s plan isn’t always the way we would choose, but it’s always the best way.  We need to look at God’s Big picture for our lives. Often when we’re worried about something it becomes our focus, and we can’t see the wood for the trees. But if we really believe that God has a plan to prosper us and that he can use everything that happens to us for our own good, then we should greet every pang of anxiety with a different attitude.

 

Why are you telling me this now…I’m already worried!

I’m sure that some of you are thinking ‘this is all very well and good, but I’m already worried!”. The last thing you want is someone telling you to “stop being so sinful and trust God more!” and God knows that too.

We can take comfort from knowing that we have a heavenly Father who understands our struggles and the emotions they provoke. Jesus lived a real life on earth, dealing with all the same feelings that we do. God gets it so well that he’s told us exactly what we can do when anxiety takes hold of us. You can find the answer in Phillipians 4 v 6+7. It’s very simple. When you’re worried, tell him about it. Get alone with God, pour it all out, give up every detail, don’t hold anything back, and then, just leave it with Him. God does this great trade with us, he takes our problems and worries and stresses and gives us his peace in return.  It’s a great offer, and you’d be mad to refuse him.  


Purpose-driven blogging

February 10, 2009

This blog will contain an assortment of  articles on Christian themes. Most are aimed at young people, but hopefully there will be something for everyone here.

The purpose of this blog is to get some feedback, which would be much appreciated, and to see what issues and topics need to be written about. If you have any suggestions of articles you would like to read, let me know.