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Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas 2013: Jesus Transforms Everything He Touches

In Matthew’s account of Jesus' birth, there’s no real dramatic or spectacular moment—no starry skies filled with angels singing praises to God while open-mouthed shepherds in the fields look up in fear and amazement. Rather, in a very matter-of-fact way, Matthew tells a story of ordinary people facing decisions involving their religious traditions and laws, their relationship and their community. We looked at all this in a lot more detail on Sunday when we looked at Joseph. But today we look at the birth of Jesus and Matthew's very ordinary, almost boring account of it, which, I want to suggest is in fact the very power and beauty of Christmas, of Emmanuel, “God with us.” I want to stress the ordinary because the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel, means God’s full and complete immersion into ordinary human life as you and I know it. God meets us in the ordinary places and situations of life, even in its complicated and sometimes messy details. Everyday human existence has now become the arena for God’s ongoing presence and activity, in other words, our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our towns.....all these have become the arena for God’s ongoing presence and activity. These ordinary places, these boring places, these places where perhaps we don't even want to be, are places where God is waiting to do extraordinary things.............because

God, as revealed to us in the Christ-child, man and resurrected Saviour, Transforms Everything He Touches

Why do I say this?......Because as I look at the very ordinary story that Matthew records for us...with no donkey, no stable, no shepherds, no innkeeper, no angels, no choirs in the heavens....just "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about".....I see an ordinary story of childbirth transformed into the best news the world ever received, a story celebrated by millions of people around the world (often by people who don't actually believe the story), I see a story people give up their lives and professions for so that they can tell others the story, I see a story people are prepared to die for...........and you know why?.......because it's a story touched by Jesus and Jesus Transforms Everything He Touches. So what do you want Him to touch this Christmas, or this coming year?........because we're in the presence of the God who transforms everything He touches.

This past Advent season in our part of the world has, somewhat miraculously in our mourning Madiba, been filled with joy and splendor, lights and laughter, and, dare I say some hope and even, some measure of peace on earth has been rekindled in us. We've been reminded of what is possible even in, especially in, hopeless situations.

And there have been mangers everywhere.......in shop windows.....on cards.......in supermarkets
Think about that. Ancient animal troughs, feeding bowls, so lowly and common in their day that farmers barely gave them a second thought, are now displayed with generous abandon all across the world. They are painted in gold, set up in lights, crafted from finest materials, bejeweled, designed by artists, and sold with retail markups—even though they’ll never actually be used by any animal anywhere.
The manger is now surrounded by orchestras giving live performances, immortalized in fine art, displayed in front lawns, printed onto window stickers that are pasted in children’s rooms (and some grown-ups' rooms and offices).
2000 years ago, that kind of treatment for a manger was not just ridiculous; it was not even imagined. A manger was just what it was: a dirty box used for holding hay and feed, a place where barnyard animals took their dinner.
Today a manger is a symbol of nothing less than the glory of God himself. Why? Because it was touched by God incarnate; and God changes everything He touches, giving that thing glory for all eternity. So what do you want God to touch this Christmas and this coming year?......your marriage, your job, your home, your church..........yourself perhaps?

You see I want to suggest that you and I are like that manger. Before the touch of God, we’re simply ordinary humans doing ordinary things. And then Jesus comes into our world, into our lives, into our homes, into our marriages, into our workplaces, and deeply into our souls which we can offer to Him as a manger for Him to make Himself at home in. And I invite you to do this, to invite Jesus in, and to keep on inviting Jesus in (it's not a once off decision, but a daily decision), because when we do this, we’re touched by the Creator of glory, and suddenly, rather than being ordinary, we are changed into vessels hosting the King.

Any greatness we may have thought we held is suddenly dwarfed into humility in the glare of his awesome presence. And any humble, degraded thing we may be or feel, is suddenly glorified by the awesome compassion of His instant, immediate, intimate love.

God transforms anything He touches. It was true of that manger so many centuries ago, and it’s true in your life, in my life, today. Let God touch you this morning.......whatever that might mean for you, just let God touch you this Christmas....allow yourself to be touched by this old, old and perhaps for you, this boring story we insist on retelling year after year after year.

Hear this good news: God welcomes us as we are—sinful, lost, helpless, dirty old mangers—then He transforms each of us into heavenly children who radiate and enjoy His glorious presence now and forevermore. Invite Him, allow Him to do this in you today.

God in a manger was both humbling and humiliating and in God's humility and humiliation, the manger becomes glorified....of course He did the same thing to the ugly cross at Easter, changing an instrument of humiliation and torture, into a thing of glory......if He can do that for things like mangers and crosses made out of wood, how much more can He do for things made of flesh and blood in His own image? God in Christ wants to come into you and into me.....and I can't speak for you, but coming into me is both humbling and humiliating for God, but He longs to do it and continues doing it in people like you and me all the time. And the good news of Christmas is that as long as we receive Him and hold Him.......He does His work of life transformation, marriage transformation, home transformation, church transformation and imparts His glory.

Look at what He did for the manger, look at what He did for the cross......think of what He's longing to do for you.

Jesus Transforms Everything He Touches...so what do you want Him to touch and transform in your life this Christmas?

Welcome Him, receive Him, cling to Him and be transformed by Him.....because Jesus Transforms Everything He Touches.




I am indebted to  
Mike Nappa's new book
God in Slow Motion
for stretching my thinking
regarding what Jesus did
to the manger.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent 3: Characters of Christmas: Elizabeth

Eternal God, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that through patience and the comfort of Your Holy Word we may embrace and for ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which You have given us in our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Luke 1:23-25 & 39-45 


I came across this silly story earlier this week:
One day a man passed by a farm and saw a beautiful horse. Hoping to buy the animal, he said to the farmer: “I think your horse looks pretty good, so I’ll give you R1000 for him.” “He doesn’t look good, and he’s not for sale,” the farmer said. The man insisted, “I think he looks good and I’ll up the price to R5000!” “He doesn’t look so good,” the farmer said, “but if you want him that much, he’s yours.” The next day the man came back raging mad. He went up to the farmer and screamed, “You sold me a blind horse! You cheated me!” The farmer calmly replied, “I told you he didn’t look so good, didn’t I?”

This man was disappointed because his expectations evaporated as soon as he got the horse home. I wonder how many of us feel disappointed by something that’s happened. Or maybe we feel cheated because something that we’ve expected to happen hasn’t happened yet.

It seems that many feel a little cheated…let down… by the events of the last week (the booing, the interpreter, the weather, the poor travel arrangements, the foto of Madiba in his coffin)…our nation seems to have put on display some of our best behaviour,…but also some of our worst….there just seems to be a feeling that we could have done better. Very often we feel that our God could “do a bit better”. I picked up a book earlier this week called: “Disappointment with God” by Philip Yancey………our third Character of Christmas, Elizabeth, is someone who could have felt disappointed with God…but didn’t, and as I read her story I thought: She teaches us many of the virtues that we are losing or lacking in the instant society we live in.
While there is actually quite a bit of Scripture devoted to her, she sort of gets lost in the nativity narrative. We tend to skip over her role as the mother of John the Baptist in our eagerness to magnify Mary’s significance.

Let’s recap from 2 weeks ago: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.” Zechariah and Elizabeth lived when wicked Herod was on the throne. He was the guy who not only killed members of his family but also ordered the extermination of all male babies under the age of two. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was also from a family of priests.

Verse 6 tells us about their character: “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” In short, they walked with God and took their faith seriously. They lived in an unnamed village in the hill country of Judea, obscure and ordinary, yet upright before God.

As we take a look at Elizabeth’s life, I want to draw out six practical truths that will help us persevere in our prayers and deal with disappointment. If you’re looking for the one sentence sermon, here it is: While you wait for something new, God is working on you.

What does Elizabeth teach us?

1. Describe your disappointment.
As devoted as Elizabeth was, she was also deeply disappointed. Notice how verse 7 begins: “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” There’s great disappointment described for us there. Some couples here may be experiencing this kind of pain as well. In that culture barrenness was considered to be a sign of God’s disfavor so this couple would have lived with some shame and the knowledge that while they were devoted to God, others probably thought they had done something wrong.

Let’s learn to name some of our disappointments. In what area of life are you experiencing unmet expectations? What prayers have been met with silence?

2. Pray for God’s provision.
Twice a year, Zechariah would leave home for a week while his division served at the Temple. This had to be difficult for Elizabeth but she also knew that it was an honor for her husband to serve in this way. Verse 9 tells us that Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and burn incense. This was a once-in-a lifetime privilege and was the greatest moment in the life of any priest. As a thousand priests stand outside and thousands of worshippers have gathered in the Court of Israel, Zechariah stands alone in the holy place. Only he’s not alone because an angel of the Lord suddenly appears and announces in verse 13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” The little verb phrase “has been heard” can be literally translated “was heard and is being heard” and I focussed on that two weeks ago, but I focussed mainly on the prayer Zechariah would have prayed as the serving priest….a prayer for the Messiah to come.

But there’s no doubt also, that Zechariah and Elizabeth had an ache in their heart for many years, and they would have kept on praying for a child. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says: “Pray continually.” They also kept serving and worshipping. I’ve seen too many people get so disappointed that they end up bitter toward God and then they drop out of church. Then God often has to put us in hopeless situations so we’ll turn back to Him.

In what area do you need to begin interceding again? Do you need to start praying again for that person who doesn’t yet know Jesus? For a relationship that will honor Christ? For your spouse? For a prodigal child? For your parents? For that impossible financial situation?

3. Trust God’s timing.
One of the hardest things to do when we pray is to wait for God’s answers. I’m intrigued by God’s sense of timing in Luke 1.

1:5 “In the time of Herod…”
1:10 “And when the time for the burning of incense came…”
1:20 “…my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
1:23 “When his time of service was completed…”
1:24 “After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.”
1:26 “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth…”
1:39 “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea.”
1:57 “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.”

When God used Gabriel to speak to Zechariah, He was breaking 400 years of silence. But now the time was right for something new. The last words in Malachi speak of the promise of a prophet who would come in the spirit of Elijah: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

God answers prayer according to His timing and His delays are not the same thing as His denials. Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”

God often waits until things are humanly impossible and then He does what only He can do:

* Abraham waited 25 years for the son that was promised to him.
* Jacob was not given prosperity until after he became a fugitive.
* Joseph was ruler of Egypt only after he was in prison.
* Gideon had victory only when his army was taken down in size to 300.

I often wish He wasn’t like this, but God waits in order to display His glory, to dispense His grace and to grow our character. I like how one author puts it:

When we pray a prayer that is not right, God will say, “NO.”
When we pray a prayer and we are not right, God will say, “GROW.”
When we pray a prayer and the timing is not right, God will say, “SLOW.”
But, when we pray a prayer and all is right, God will say, “GO.”

In what area do you need to trust God’s timing? Related to this, do you need to confess any anger you have toward God for not answering according to your timetable? Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t know it, but God had been planning this from the very beginning. What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God working to prepare them to be part of His plan to offer salvation to the world. Friend, it’s time to let God do His perfect work in His perfect time and stop trying to push Him to fit our imperfect schedules. Remember the one sentence sermon: Before God does something new, He’s working on you!

Conclusion
Two weeks ago, Zechariah taught us to believe rather than doubt.
Last week, Mary taught us that there is NOTHING our God cannot do
Elizabeth teaches us this week to:  Name our disappointments
                                                                  Pray for God’s provision
                                                                  Trust God’s timing

You might want to do some of these things right now.


With thanks to Brian Bill of
Edgewood Baptist Church for
the ideas informing my 3 points

Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent 2: Characters of Christmas: MARY, mother of Jesus

 Heavenly Father, who chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour: fill us with Your grace, that in all things we may accept Your Holy Will and with her rejoice in Your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday is usually my sermon preparation day, and obviously this Friday, which began here in South Africa with the news of Nelson Mandela’s death.... was a very different sermon prep Friday. 

We are looking at Mary today, a young, rural woman, chosen by God to carry greatness in her womb.  Chosen to give Jesus to the world.
Last week when we looked at Zechariah, we saw God choosing an elderly couple, to give Israel John the Baptist, who Jesus would call “the greatest man who ever lived.”

And it occurred to me……much of God’s great work, often begins in great vulnerability and great humility, in a mother’s womb.

Many people in these last few days, and no doubt in the days to come, have thanked God for the gift that Nelson Mandela was to South Africa and to the world.  Where did he begin?  ……where most of God’s great plans begin……in his mother's womb.  In about November 1917, a young rural woman, Nonquapi Nosekeni, discovered she was pregnant, and her son, Rolihlahla Mandela, was born 9 months later, on 18 July 1918.  I am in no way trying to compare Mandela to the Messiah, but I am saying that God’s great plans begin in the strangest places, using the unlikeliest of people, and often in the vulnerability of a mother's womb. So we come, this Sunday, to the story of Mary.

Luke 1:37 is both the text and the sermon today:

 “There is nothing God cannot do.”

Think about your life right now……and your future……there is nothing that God cannot do.
This is the truth……and it is one that can set you and me free....free from the imprisoning cages of fear, of worry, of anxiety that we erect around ourselves.

There is nothing that God cannot do.

He can create and sustain a universe just by speaking.
He can create a people to serve Him and tell the world about Him, and still achieve His plan even when they become stubborn and disobedient and eventually even kill their Saviour.

There is nothing that God cannot do.

And an angel appears to a young virgin called Mary, we don’t know exactly how old she was....probably 13 or 14 years.  In the culture of the time, that was the marrying age..... we live in an age where there doesn’t seem to be a culture of encouraging young people to marry……but maybe that’s another sermon.

Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph.  An angel appears to Mary and says:

 “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!”

Friends, I’m no angel, but God says those words to you this morning through me as I read them to you:
Peace be with you!
The Lord is with you!
The Lord has greatly blessed you!

Mary is confused, you might be too.

The angel goes on to Mary and to you…… (I asked you earlier to think of your life right now, hear the LORD say to you)

“Don't be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you." 

Now because each of us is unique, the specific message that God has for you is different to the message He has for the person next to you, just as His message for Mary was unique.  And whatever it is that you might find yourself facing or going through, you might find yourself saying with Mary in verse 34:

 How can this be?

  How will, how can, Your plan unfold in me, it's so easy for Cedric to say "Don't be afraid"....but in my life right now, it's such a mess, there’s no way out, in my marriage, my family, work, my country,....How can this be???? 

and I think God’s answer is the same as His answer to Mary:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and God’s power will rest upon you.”

  The death, resurrection, ascension and then the pouring down of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost means that the words for Mary, are God’s words for you and for me.  The Holy Spirit has been given to you and to me and to everyone who asks God in Christ into their lives, and allows God free reign in their lives.  
That’s the key to Mary and to her relationship to her Lord....He reigns in her life.
Does He reign in your life, truly reign, in your life and mine?
Many of us say yes to Jesus but NO to what He expects of us.
Many of us say yes to Jesus but NO to the way He wants us to live.
Many of us say yes to Jesus but NO to the way He wants us to use our money.
Many of us say yes to Jesus but NO to the people He wants us to love. 

Mary didn't say NO to God and so His plan could unfold so much more easily in her and through her.

Does God reign in your life – in other words, His Way and only His way?

God’s way is invariably the way of peace. Our history as a nation shows us that when violent people are enemies, no peace is possible, no matter how strong they are.  When peace-seekers and peace-makers are enemies……peace will happen. When the peace seeking Mandela and the peace seeking de Klerk collided.....peace was the result. When peace-seekers and peace-makers are enemies……peace will happen.This is as much true in nations as it is in homes and marriages, churches and workplaces.  Seek peace and bring peace and make peace...today.  
This often requires us…..no, always requires us to say with Mary, 

“I am the Lord's servant, may it happen to me as you have said.” 

The young virgin Mary teaches us 3 things about the life in which God is allowed to reign:

 It's a life which listens for the Lord’s direction, and because it is listening, it will hear when the Lord speaks.
It's a life which says, “I am the Lord’s servant.”
And it's a life which says, “Your Will, not my will, be done.  May it happen to me as you have said and planned, ever since you placed me and formed me in my mother's womb.”

My Nelson Mandela Memories

                                Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
                                               Madiba
                                July 18, 1918 - December 5, 2013

I think each of us South Africans has our unique "Mandela Memory".....


Cedric and Chris Poole at Nelson Mandela Square, Johannesburg
...my first real "Mandela Memory" was on arriving for my first year of dental studies at Wits University (Johannesburg) in 1978 (18 months after the June 16 Soweto Uprising) and being confronted with the Free Mandela CampaignI am ashamed to say now that at that time, as an 18 year old South African boy, I knew little or nothing about Nelson Mandela. Whether I can blame the government of the day for
(sourced from sahistory.com)

 this or not is a moot point.  Yes, it was illegal to quote him as he was a banned person....yes, my history lessons throughout my schooling had never mentioned him, and yes, what little I did know of him, from government propaganda, was that he was a terrorist and, to make it worse, he was a communist! These were the two biggest threats to civilized life as we (white) teenagers understood it. So, arriving at Wits University as a "well educated" young adult and being confronted on day one of orientation week with the Free Mandela Campaign (which of course was a totally illegal campaign and was closely watched by BOSS, the Bureau of State Security, which, it later came to light, followed up on those who showed an interest in the campaign and identified them as potential dangers to the State)  was really the beginning of my political awakening. I am further ashamed to confess that my allegiances were more with the Free Beer Campaign than the Free Mandela Campaign, but, I realise now..........something did begin to change in the Free State boytjie who arrived at Wits that year. 

So that counts as my first "Mandela Memory" of significance.

My second "Mandela Memory" of significance is without a doubt the announcement of his impending
release: I believe most Americans can remember exactly where they were when they heard of the assassination of JFK, and more recently, where they were when they heard about 9/11. Well, in a similar way, I remember just where I was when I heard of Nelson Mandela's planned release.....I was just up the road from my dental practice in Pietermaritzburg, driving past the OK Bazaars in Boshoff Street and I remember thinking....even though you want to, this isn't the  safest place to celebrate by jumping out the car and shouting Hooray! Pietermaritzburg, which was the capital of the province Natal, which in turn was the stronghold of the Inkatha movement which was the strongest "black" opposition to the (banned) ANC, did not respond very well to the news of Mandela's release. I remember wondering on that Friday afternoon at the beginning of February 1990 what this would lead to in my beloved South Africa.


(sourced from oisbengaluru.blogspot.com)

My third "Mandela Memory" would have to be watching his release about 10 days later on a Sunday afternoon on national television....the images remain vividly imprinted on (I think) all our minds as South Africans.......as do some of the quite inane things said by the TV commentators such as "the people are drinking water here like it's going out of fashion"!


My fourth Mandela Memory would have to be queuing to vote in our first democratic elections just 4 weeks after going into my first appointment as a Methodist minister and thinking...a new life for our country and a new life for me. 

Fifth would be Nelson Mandela's inauguration as our State President and once again a vivid recollection of seeing one of our SA Defence Force generals (I think Georg Meiring, but I stand to be corrected) opening the door of his limousine,saluting him and saying "Good morning, Sir" and Nelson Mandela responding with a booming "How are you?"
(sourced from sahistory.com)


The closest I have yet been to Madiba (other than driving past his home in Houghton) was when he was the guest speaker at the Methodist Conference at which I was ordained in 1998 (read his full address here) in Durban. While he said much, these two things remain embedded in my mind, and, I hope, in my ministry:


What South Africa needs now is not only good government and good laws. We
need people who are committed to making this the country of our dreams. And we
need religious people who live their faith....

and


We count on the religious fraternity to help us restore the moral values and
the respect for each other that were destroyed by the inhumanity of apartheid.

Our Presiding Bishop, Mvume Dandala, also presided over the marriage of Madiba to Graca Machel on the Saturday before our ordination service on the Sunday.


A final "Mandela Memory", and one which I wish the MCSA and other religious bodies he appealed to would live up to, is the address President Nelson Mandela gave to our Conference in 1994, (read it here) just a few months after his inauguration as State President: 

South Africa now has a democratic government representative of, and accountable to, all the people. By your fearless commitment to truth and justice, the Methodist Church and other religious bodies helped realise  this. But all governments, no matter how democratic, need constructive criticism and advice. I ask you to continue to play your prophetic role, always seeking to hold the nation and all its leaders to the highest standards of integrity and service.

History since this appeal made by Nelson Mandela to the MCSA, records that we, and the other religious bodies he appealed to, let him down. Where was our indignant and prophetic voice, for example, while the lambs of our nation were denied life saving anti-retro-viral treatment, leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths (all of this after he left office, please note)?

Where was my voice, I ask myself, and what ought I to learn from the example that Nelson Mandela set us?

We may have let Nelson Mandela down, but, praise God, he never let us down.