Monday, December 31, 2012

So What is Christmas All About?

Last month we had our church's Community Get Together Christmas event. We have the CGT each month and it is a time of opening up the Church Hall to the community offering free morning tea and a place to have stalls and maybe just sit and talk or play games.

We decided to have the Christmas one in November just so it wasn't too busy for people, encouraging them to come while they had time. I was asked to give the brief talk and after picking up a free booklet from RBC ministries, we received in the office, I felt God prompt me to share the following.

I picked up a little booklet titled “So What is Christmas All About?”
Here is some of it …

The First World War began in August 1914, and by the time it had ended entire cultures had changed drastically, countries borders had moved back and forth several times and millions of people’s lives had been altered forever. Within only a few months of the start of the war, the embattled sides had settled into a system of trench warfare based on a strategy of attrition (where the last man standing ‘won’), and the war trudged on for four remorseless years.

In contrast to the brutality of the First World War, the story is told that on Christmas Day, 1914 a soldier popped his head over the top of his trench and looked out across no man’s land. Rather than throw a few grenades across the field of death littered with barbed wire, he instead tossed a couple of tins of corned beef into his enemy’s trench, knowing that both sides of the war lacked most of life’s basic essentials and were nearly always hungry. Within a minute or so, a dull thud in the soil next to him sounded the arrival of a packet of coffee and some sweets, courtesy of ‘the other side’.

Cautiously, men began to emerge from out of the relative safety of their mud coffins. Within a short while jokes were being translated from German into English and vice versa, food was pooled together for a Christmas dinner, cards were produced on makeshift tables and, finally, a game of football was being played between the two warring armies, amid shouts of delight and good humoured rivalry. The day ended with handshakes, smiles and even prayers for each other.

On 26 December the commanding authorities on both sides outlawed any repetition of the event under pain of death, and the slaughter began again in earnest. The ray of hope was wiped from the war experience, and most of the participants of the event would be dead with a year.

(I continued)
Can you recall the best Christmas you have ever had?
I wonder what it involved.
Was it lots of presents?
Lots of food?
Being at the beach?
Maybe a white Christmas overseas?
Being with family?
Celebrating with Christmas decorations galore?
Going to church and being touched by Christmas Carols?

I would imagine that for those soldiers it would have been one of the best Christmas’s they ever had and yet none of the above would have been part of it. They were far away from their families, no letters or parcels from home or warm cooked feasts, living under the terror or death every day and here was the enemy joining them to celebrate the special day. For many they would not have lived long after.

So what does this tell us about Christmas?
Each side knew what Christmas meant and wanted to show love to the other.
Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is the Son of God who came to earth to be a human like us and then at Easter He is crucified on a cross for our sins. The ultimate gain for all is to be with God in heaven when we die. But we are sinners, we do wrong in God’s eyes and God says we cannot enter heaven if we sin.
That’s a tall order and one which none of us can complete.
God knows this so He sent His Son – Jesus – who had never sinned to die for us so that He would pay the price for us and then we can go to heaven.
In Romans 3:22-24 in the New Living Translation we read.

22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

But that cannot happen for you unless you believe in your heart that it is true and are sorry for your sins and make it your goal to stop the sinning. You can only do this by asking Jesus into your life to help you do so. 

16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
But for all this to happen, God had to first come to earth and be born.
So this is where the story of Christmas comes in.
Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas over 2000 years ago. Thirty three years later he was nailed to the cross, died but rose again – the first Easter.
Isn’t that a most wonderful truth?

So the start of the celebration is Christmas, and like those soldiers, we celebrate it with what we have and with who we can. It is a time of making do with whatever you have like those soldiers and enjoying the day for its true meaning.

The gifts those soldiers gave to one another was the food. The freedom to be themselves and make friends with each other for one day in the midst of the horrors of war.

God gave us the ultimate gift, the gift of Jesus as a baby, that we remember each Christmas.

As you celebrate this next month do so remembering what Christmas is REALLY all about, for without Gods’ fist gift there would be no Christ in Christmas.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Advent

I have been so busy and Christmas has been and gone. I have not had time to blog even though I have a few posts to add. It seems that Christmas always brings out the business and we forget to focus on the true meaning of the day. I have preached another sermon and in doing so I was able to find time to reflect and so I will post it here for you too.

It was the fourth Sunday in Advent and I took the whole 8.00am service. The reading was from Luke 1:39-45 but I included the section before it Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:39-45
Mary Visits Elizabeth 

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Today I would like to touch on what you believe in.
In the reading from Luke we hear the story of Mary now pregnant with Jesus traveling to see her older relative Elizabeth, a cousin, who is also miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist.
Before this passage we read…

In Luke 1:26-38

The Birth of Jesus Foretold 

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary, a virgin, was 13 years of age or so when she became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God creating life in her womb without a man involved at all. The whole miraculous coming of Jesus Christ begins with the two conception miracles. At this time, there hadn't been a miracle in over 400 years, there hadn't been a series of miracles in at least 500 years. Nobody had heard from an angel, or even from God in well over 400 years. Miracles just didn't happen. God didn't speak. Angels didn't show up until now. And it all begins with these two amazing conceptions...Elizabeth, chosen to be the mother of John the Baptist, the Man who will tell of the arrival of the Messiah, and Mary, chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God.

Mary and Elizabeth already knew one another. But in this encounter, they discover, another thing the same in one another, a mystery which they had not known as yet, and which fills them with great joy. Both pregnant for the first time and only through the miracle of God, through His spirit. Well, if you stop and think about it, you can really begin to understand why Mary wanted, at the sort of slight prompting of the angel Gabriel, why she wanted to go and meet with Elizabeth as soon as she could.
I mean, she had just been told something that was absolutely humanly impossible and frankly unimaginable, that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.
She was going to be the mother of the Son of God.
She was going to bear a holy offspring that would be conceived in her by God the Most High Himself.
And all of this while being a virgin.
She had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah.
The Messiah would be a holy offspring.
All of this would happen without a man's involvement.
It would all be done by God.
This was just mind boggling, just more than any human could ever understand or comprehend.
No woman who ever lived had heard such a word...beyond understanding, beyond comprehension.
And besides, miracles didn't happen and God didn't speak and angels just didn't show up in visible fashion.

Well the angel knew that this was a startling, devastating bit of information. And so he gave her a sign, verse 36, "Behold, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month for nothing will be impossible with God."
There weren't miracles.
There weren't conception miracles.
Mary believed the angel.
She had faith.
Her faith had a measure of strength, but it was still really beyond comprehension.
It takes little imagination to understand that she would need to really build that strength of faith that miracles do happen, that conception miracles do happen and this one was going to happen in her body without her even knowing it miraculously. There wouldn't be any day or any point in time, any personal, physical experience. This would happen by the miracle of God.
How would her mortal flesh withstand the emotional and spiritual strain of carrying the Son of God, the Messiah?
This ordinary girl of flesh and blood, this ordinary girl who knew her own sinfulness and her own weaknesses, how could she endure the emotional strain of the honor of having the Son of God in her womb?
And could she really be sure that this in fact was reality?

It might not begin to evidence itself in her body for a period of time, but she couldn't wait for that and so in a hurry she wants to go and see Elizabeth because she wants to be sure that in fact God can do, is doing, has done conception miracles and Elizabeth was the living proof of that. There was one person who would be verification for her that God was able to do a conception miracle, and that one person was Elizabeth. So it tells us in verse 39 she arose and went with haste to the hill country of Judah and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.

Verse 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
Mary is blessed because she believed. Mary was blessed, because, embracing in her heart the promise of God, she conceived and brought forth a Savior.

Faith gives way to the divine promises, that they may obtain their accomplishment in us. The truth of God certainly does not depend on the willingness of us, but God remains always true

Romans 3:4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” 

Hebrews 6:18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged

We read in Hebrews Chapter 11 of all the people of biblical times who ‘by faith’ believed and did mighty things through God.

Hebrews 11:1-2
Faith in Action 
1Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 

God offers his benefits indiscriminately to all, and faith opens us up to receive them. If there had been any unbelief in Mary; that could not have prevented God from accomplishing his work in any other way which he might choose. But she is called blessed, because she received by faith the blessing offered to her, and opened up the way to God for its accomplishment
45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” This is the praise of Elizabeth to Mary and the message of Luke for all of us: to believe in the Word of God, because the Word of God has the force to fulfil all that which it tells us. It is a creative Word. It generates new life in the womb of the Virgin, in the hearts of people who accept it with faith.

Today also, we meet people who surprise us because of the wisdom they possess and the witness of faith that they give.
Has something similar happened to you already?
Have you met people who have surprised you?
What prevents us from discovering and from living the joy of God’s presence in our life?
Placing myself in the place of Mary and Elizabeth: am I capable to perceive and experience the presence of God in the most simple and common things in the life of every day?
The praise of Elizabeth to Mary: “You have believed!”
Be prepared to hear God speak to you.
Be ready to take in what He has to say and believe it will come to pass.
When God gives us a part to play he gives us the means to carry it out, but he wants us to believe so He can carry it out in us.

At this stage I then played a CD with the following song on it.

Breath Of Heaven
Lyrics Amy Grant

I have travelled many moonless nights,
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And I wonder what I’ve done.
Holy father you have come,
And chosen me now to carry your son.

I am waiting in a silent prayer.
I am frightened by the load I bear.
In a world as cold as stone,
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.

Breath of heaven,
Hold me together,
Be forever near me,
Breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven,
Lighten my darkness,
Pour over me your holiness,
For you are holy.
Breath of heaven.

Do you wonder as you watch my face,
If a wiser one should have had my place,
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.

Breath of heaven…

All scripture is taken from New International Version 1984